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Who Has The “Real” Power In Your Organization?

Sometimes the most influential individuals in an organization are not the senior executives. In our knowledge-based economy, we have seen hierarchies break down, and functional leaders have a greater ability to influence change.

William Ocasio, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, has written that there has been a shift in the way control is exhibited, and political capital is frequently more important than a person’s position on an organizational chart. 

“This is a different way of understanding how power works in organizations,” Ocasio says. “It’s not about coercing people—it’s about mobilizing political support. Leaders can’t accomplish their goals without a broad support base, which is why political capital is important for leaders.”

Ocasio offers some ideas:

Don’t underestimate how much capital you have—or could have. 

“In the past twenty years, we have come to understand better the importance of finding sources of political capital beyond the traditional corporate hierarchy,” Ocasio says.

How much political capital have you built over time? 

Ocasio identifies seven distinct forms of political capital: human, social, reputational, economic, symbolic, organizational, and cultural. He argues that combining your reputational capital with the added value of your job title is an unbeatable combination.

Build reputational capital early. 

Every organization is different, and it may value one form or another, but we know that building a good reputation early in your tenure serves you well into the future. He writes, “You need to understand which sources of political capital are truly valued in your organization.”

Invest in political capital before you need it. 

“Every organization encounters uncertainty, crises, and unexpected events,” Ocasio says. “The higher you rise, the more you will have to deal with nonroutine situations.”

Read your organization’s culture. 

“It’s extremely important to understand what’s valued at a given organization,” Ocasio says. “On the one hand, you want to diversify—this will be good for you in the long run—but in the short and medium-term, you need to understand which sources of political capital are truly valued in your organization.”

If you don’t feel like you have built up enough influence, here are some ideas:

  1. Build trust with your coworkers Let them know they can count on you.
  2. Be consistent in your approach to tasks and conversations.
  3. Be flexible. (That is not a contradiction to the point above. When you are negotiating, you may need to be flexible, but when you have your daily interactions, you want to be seen as thoughtful as well as consistent.
  4. Be assertive, but not aggressive. There is always someone who believes that they will get their way if they are aggressive. That rarely works.
  5. While you don’t need to go out for drinks with your coworkers, positive, and friendly comments when appropriate is always effective. 
  6. Don’t get into arguments.
  7. Remember that your actions speak louder than words.
  8. Be a good listener. If you are talking all the time, you will be seen as having an out of control ego and won’t gain influence.

What kind of political capital have you built up? Is it based in large part on the title you have? Or, are you seen as the go-to person when new situations arise even though your title may not give you that authority on paper?

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