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Informal Power, Or: Why It Always Pays To Be Polite

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines power as (among other definitions) “possession of control, authority, or influence over others”. Nothing terribly shocking there. But it’s worth digging into how power induces that influence. There’s the obvious, overt “Do this thing because I said to do the thing.” We’re all familiar with that one. But there’s also a different form of influence that comes not from influencing people, but circumstance. And on any given day, this informal power is far more likely to cause you grief.

By Reading This Post, You Will Learn

  • The definitions of formal and informal power
  • Why informal power is often a far greater source of concern
  • Ways to identify sources of informal power
  • A simple strategy for contending with people who possess informal power

Formal Or Informal Power: Pick Your Poison

It turns our there are actually two broad categories of power: formal and informal. Formal power is derived from position. Police officers have power by position. So do your boss, a supreme court justice, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Informal power, on the other hand, is derived from ACCESS. A CEO’s administrative assistant has very little formal power over the company. But she is the gatekeeper for the chief executive, so she has MASSIVE amounts of informal power. Other people with significant informal power? Legal departments, HR departments, IT administrators, office managers, receptionists, accountants, marketing researchers, and those lucky few who have influence over the formal decision makers.

So, pop-quiz: to which form of power should you afford more consideration?

If you said formal, think again.

People with informal power can completely wreck your shit if you give them cause. The worst someone in a position of formal power can do is fire you*. But someone in a position of informal power? They can make your life a living hell.

Hieronymus Bosch Had Nothing on HR

Let’s think through a scenario.

You need to speak to a very busy VP about something crucial. But she has delegated the management of her calendar to her secretary because, well, she’s very busy. So before you can even get to the woman in charge, you have to get past the gate-keeper. And he can screw you six ways from Sunday if he has a mind to. He can refuse to book your appointment. Or, he can book a meeting and then constantly reschedule it. He can give you a shit appointment time. Or he can poison the well by telling the VP that you’re a condescending prick. Or he can just flat out ignore you.

And he’s not the only one can throw frag grenade into your plans.

HR can tie up your hiring processes in red tape. Legal can outright kill projects based on liability concerns. Office managers can refuse to help you organize specialized equipment for an important meeting (or even a simple pizza party). And IT admins…holy shit. Talk about having you by the short and curlies.

I’m Not Saying They Will…Just That They Can

Lest you think I am trying to paint everyone in these positions in a negative light, I’m not saying that everyone who enjoys informal power will abuse it. I’m just saying is that, in a worst case scenario, if you really piss one of these folks off, you’re in for a whole new kind of bureaucratic pain. And, because their flavor of power is informal, there is rarely any defined path to resolution. You generally just have to appeal to someone further up the chain.

The problem with that being, of course, that that senior person delegated responsibility to the gate-keeper, because he didn’t have time to deal with that process in the first place. IE, they’re going to have better things to do than straighten somebody else out on your behalf unless there is a major, mission-critical problem.

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The Good News: It Costs You Nothing to be Polite

All that said, there is one huge feather in your cap, assuming you are – or can provide a reasonable facsimile of – a people person. The funny thing about holding informal power is that it seems to strongly correlate with feeling perpetually put upon. Think about it: they have access, so people constantly come to them with requests and to-do’s, but they have no formal authority, so people rarely take the time to acknowledge their importance. Basically, these folks feel over-worked and under-appreciated.

And that’s where you come in.

If you’re the one person who consistently says “Hello”, “How are you?”, “Please” and “Thank you” to a person who routinely feels under-appreciated, believe me, you will stand out.

I’m not saying butter them up or be fake. You don’t need to do that. Well, okay, there are some remarkably officious curmudgeons out there who need a little smoke up their asses to win them over. But in general, all you need to do is be polite.

It also helps if you routinely say their names to them. Don’t just say “Hi!”. Say “Hi, Kim” or “Hi, Fred” or “Hi, Rich.” Our brains are wired to respond positively when people say our names to us.

Yes, it’s basic, Dale Carnegie-type stuff. But it works. Be polite, show gratitude, and validate their existence as human beings. Doors will open, special cases will be allowed and meetings will  be booked.

Play By the Rules

The second rule you need to observe with gate keepers is to always follow whatever their protocol is. These folks have established ways that things have to be done. They also have people constantly attempting to bypass those protocols either out of impatience, self-importance, or disregard.

So, basically, in addition to giving them short shrift, everyone tries to make their jobs harder by attempting to break the rules.

But if you’re the person who is always friendly AND follows established protocol, it can be a lot easier to get things done.

Further Reading If You Enjoyed This Post

Strong Fences Make For The Best Neighbors: Conversations for Co-Founders

What Is A Synergy? – A Business School Mini-Lesson

5 Vital Business Principles in the Form of Pithy Quotes

Action Item: Find The Gate Keepers

TLDR: whenever you have dealings with an unfamiliar organization, either as a new employee or under some form of formal partnership, your first order of business should be to find the gatekeepers. Find the people who control access to anything important – databases, senior managers, resources, facilities, etc – and introduce yourself.

And then just Dale Carnegie the shit out of them.

Key Takeaways

  • There are two broad categories of power
  • Formal power is derived from position – a person acquires formal power because of his or her title
  • Informal power is derived from access – a person with informal power because he or she has access to some key resource
  • Informal power is far more likely to cause you pain on a day-to-day basis, because it is more common
  • The best defense you have against informal power is simple: be polite and play by the rules

*Yes, they can also ruin your reputation, but this would be an extension of informal power with other organizations. They can’t make those other organizations fire you. But they can poison the well for you by whispering into the right (or wrong, based on persepctive) ear.
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“Informal Power, Or: Why It Always Pays To Be Polite” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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