How power can operate in a workplace

I was reading the Power Threat Meaning Framework published the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology and authored by Lucy Johnstone, Mary Boyle and others the other day. Find it here if you’re interested.

I was struck by how the examination of power relationships in the Framework’s perspective of emotional distress, unusual experiences and troubled or troubling behaviour also has applicability in understanding the experience of women in the workplace; from sexual harassment, to the unconscious biases that affect how women and their work are perceived, to being interrupted in meetings.

One of the core questions in the Framework is “How is power operating in your life?” both positively and negatively, which is a question I invite you to think about for your workplace.

Here are seven different ways that power can operate in our lives and our workplaces.

# 1  Biological or embodied power
For example strength, physical appearance, skin shade and colour, talents and abilities, and physical health and wellness. Who holds embodied power in your workplace and in what ways? How can you embody greater power?

# 2  Coercive power or power by force
This can involve use of aggression or threats to frighten, intimidate, or ensure compliance. Who do you know that uses intimidation to maintain their position?

# 3  Legal power
This refers to a wide range of rules and sanctions which regulate and control many areas of our lives and behaviour, which can offer or restrict choices (for example workplace flexibility for parents), protect people’s rights (the right to be taken seriously when making a sexual harassment claim), and so on.

# 4  Economic and material power
Economic power refers to having the means to obtain valued possessions and services, and/or to control others’ access to them including security, privacy, legal services, employment, education and so on. Can you afford to join colleagues for dinner at expensive restaurants? What are you missing out on if you don’t go?

# 5  Social or cultural capital
Social power is a mix of valued qualifications, social identities, knowledge and social connections. People can become very influential in a workplace by building their social capital. Importantly today this involves access to and skills in using technology and social media. It is a combination of what you know AND who you know. What can you do today to build your social capital?

# 6  Interpersonal power
Interpersonal power refers to the power to look out for or not look out for, to help or abandon, give or withdraw, to undermine or support others in their development. Don’t underestimate the value of having a mentor, coach or sponsors, or the unfair advantage of the ‘old boys club’. One of the best strategies for women to navigate through unconscious gender bias at work is for women to support other women; be boast buddies, back each other up, and support each other at the end of a hard week.

# 7  Ideological power
Ideological power, a significant operation of power often beyond our awareness, involves the control of meaning, language, and agendas and it is present in all industries. It includes the power to create narratives which support particular social and economic interests.  You may have a greater awareness of this operating at societal level than that of your organisation.

It also includes the power to create beliefs or stereotypes about particular groups and the power to silence or undermine. How does this show up horizontally and vertically between professions, roles, genders, races, or other groups in your workplace?

Conversations about power are critical conversations in working towards equality. Different forms of power can be used positively or negatively. Claiming ones power does not need to equate to talking power from others or having power over others.

I would love to hear about how power operates in your workplace to both uplift and support the success of women as well as to silence, undermine, or constrain their potential.

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