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3 Types of Power

Every individual has 3 types of power: Positional, Relational, and Competence. Understanding what these are and which are most important is critical for every manager to learn.

Let’s look at each one individually.


Positional power is the power you derive from your role in and standing in the organization. This is a power that has been given to you. For example, a manager has the power to hire, fire, promote, etc. Every organization has rules and policies around the power that goes with each position. For example, any employee at one firm may have the unquestioned power to spend up to $200 to solve a customer service issue at one company, whereas another company may say that any amount has to be approved by a manager.


Relational power comes from your network and the relationships you’ve built. This is not given to you, it must be earned by you. This power will change based on the length, trust, and type of relationship. It is not often thought of as a “power” in the traditional sense as it is not a clearly defined thing. However, it functions in the same way. For example, a friend who I’ve known for 20 years and have an incredibly trusting and close relationship may let me borrow his car with no questions asked. Another friend who I’ve known for a shorter time and haven’t built up a great deal of trust may reject my request or ask a bunch of questions to make himself feel comfortable.


Competence power comes from what you have accomplished. Like relational power, it is earned, not given (usually). The level of power will vary widely based on the specific skill that is required. For example, I have had a great deal of success in building effective training programs for organizations, so they tend to believe me when I say something should be done a specific way. If I told them how to build their new factory (where I have no experience or successes), they probably won’t listen to me. The one example of when competence power is given when unearned would be a certification or a degree. I may trust that someone just graduated from college with an accounting degree would know the basics of accounting, but that judgement will change quickly once I see them at work.


In terms of importance, remember that positional power is always the weakest. Relational and competence can toggle in importance based on the situation. For example, if a new project comes along that is not risky, the competence power may determine how supportive the team is. If the project is risky, relational power may become more important.


My advice to managers – spend every day building up your relational power by getting to know and support your employees. Having strong relational power will help you every day, but it will become critical during crisis moments. It takes time to build. The same with competence power, but don’t try to build it with everything. Admit the areas where others are more competent than you and use those people in those areas. (NOTE: Doing that builds your relational power because you are seen as having good self-awareness which leads to deeper trust.)


While positional power is the weakest, do not ignore it. Be aware of its consequences and the damage that can be done when it is used. There may be instances where you have to use it, but doing that too much will cause all kinds of relationship damage.


One area of positional power of which managers need to be aware is the unspoken power. Every employee sees you as powerful simply because of this position. You have the power to hire, fire, promote, assign good projects, etc. Lots of things that can impact a career. Even if you would never wield it in a negative way, employees have a certain fear and trepidation because of it. I knew a manager who would jokingly say “If this doesn’t work, I may have to let you go.” He never meant it and thought it was building up a relationship between him and the employee. However, the employees started to see it as a subtle threat. Sure, he had never done it, but the fact that he kept saying it made them think that he just might. What he thought was building the relationship was actually damaging it.


Pay attention to these powers in your relationship and how you use them.

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