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What is personal power? Develop your power and own your life

December 20, 2021 - 19 min read

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What is personal power?

Two types of personal power

Personal power examples

Why is personal power important?

Books on personal power

How to use your personal power

In the workplace (and in life), we have different types of power at our disposal. Some of it is positional, meaning the power or authority is assigned based on position or rank in an organization.

And then there is personal power. 

But what is personal power?

Personal power comes from a combination of positive traits and characteristics. It is based on social and personal skills, which make you naturally appealing to others.

Effective leaders need to know how to use their personal power to influence the behavior of others.

Let’s dive into some personal power examples and how best to use your personal power in your professional and personal life.

What is personal power?

Someone with strong personal power is focused on their self-efficacy and ability to cooperate with others. They lead by example. They are inspiring. They influence their peers by fostering a positive worldview. They are assertive but respectful, successful but humble, and driven but stable.

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People with personal power affect change around them by regulating themselves. In contrast, those with positional power affect change by regulating others.

For example, someone who is confident and charismatic will find it easier to make friends and influence people. This is true even if they hold no official position of power.

In professional settings, someone who is dependable, assertive, and well-organized will likely be taken more seriously. These are examples of personal power in practice.

Two types of personal power

There are two types of personal power: referent and expert power. Let’s explore the differences between the two.

Referent power

Referent power is characterized by strong interpersonal skills. A leader whose charisma and approachability puts their team at ease and inspires commitment has strong referent power. 

When you listen to someone talk and are inspired by their confidence, drawn in by their charisma, and comforted by their presence, they are exercising referent power. 

This doesn’t mean you’re being manipulated. It just means that the person you’re talking to commands respect because of their leadership and communication skills.

Think of Steve Jobs during his time at Apple. His self-assurance, magnetism, public speaking skills, and natural charisma motivated his employees. It attracted customers and put his products on the map. He was a wizard of referent power — so much so that millions of people continue to emulate him during their own presentations. 

Referent power is exceedingly important in a leader. It sets the tone for the operations of the entire organization. It doesn’t matter how solid your business plan is. If you can’t inspire your colleagues or make them feel valued, you will inevitably run into obstacles that inhibit progress.

Expert power

Expert power differs from referent power in that it emphasizes knowledge, not charisma. 

In the workplace, somebody with expert power is perceived to have a high level of knowledge on a certain subject. This person has a strong influence over their peers, as others trust their input on decisions and strategies. They are looked up to by others who share similar skill sets and are sought after for solutions and advice.

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Expert power is to referent power, as Steve Wozniak is to Steve Jobs. His technical expertise has made him the port of call for countless issues in Apple’s history. People wanted to work for Apple because of him. He inspired a generation of engineers and programmers to expand their own skills

Expert power is just as important as referent power. But it’s okay if you don’t have both. Personal power is built on: 

Organizational leaders with both expert and referent power create work environments with inspired and satisfied employees.

Personal power examples

With the right interpersonal skills, self-confidence, and networking, your social and professional lives will transform before your eyes.

Let’s look at some personal power examples, specifically referent power, to better understand its value. 

Let’s say you’re contending with a colleague to take the lead on a project you’ve been itching to work on. You battle to conduct yourself confidently. You don’t make eye contact and you doubt yourself.

Your colleague speaks clearly and audibly. They assert their capability to effectively manage the project. They do this in a way that demonstrates confidence but not arrogance. 

Who do you think will get the job?

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To provide another example of referent power, say you’re in a meeting with colleagues. You’re brainstorming ideas for an upcoming marketing campaign. Someone pitches a bad idea, and you cut them off mid-sentence.

Someone else intervenes. They calmly explain to the person why the idea wouldn’t work and thank them for their contribution.

Which approach do you think built more trust and inspired more constructive input?

The same applies to making new friends or networking in general. Developing personal power means: 

It requires projecting confidence and speaking with authority on subjects you know well. It also requires surrendering the floor when someone else knows more. It’s about respecting yourself enough to be fearlessly authentic. And it’s about respecting others enough to make them feel seen and appreciated.

In essence, being authentic, confident, and respectful will earn you greater trust and regard than any ‘technique’ or façade you put out there. It is easier said than done. But like most things in life, practice makes perfect.

Why is personal power important?

Developing personal power has the potential to enrich your life as well as the lives of those around you. It can drive you to greater fulfillment and success in a way that uplifts others as well as yourself.

It is important to note that personal power and positional power are not mutually exclusive. 

In fact, these forms of power can and should be used together. 

The best leaders don’t rely solely on their legitimate power and positions of authority to affect change. In some cases, this approach might be effective at first. But ultimately, it is more likely to leave people feeling resentful and emotionally drained than inspired and cooperative. 

Think about your family dynamics when you were a child. How did it make you feel when your parents made you do something just because they said so? Possibly frustrated or angry. However, when they took the time to speak to you calmly and acknowledge your feelings, you likely felt much less disgruntled. 

You also probably came around more easily when they held themselves to the same standards that they expected of you. While the parent-child dynamic is different from adult relationships in many ways, the basic concept is the same. 

Using personal and positional power in tandem often yields better, more sustainable results.

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Personal power is also essential in securing support and cooperation from others. Whether you like it or not, everyone needs other people to survive and succeed. Professionally or socially, you cannot hope to achieve your goals without having other people on your side.

If you embody personal power, people are more inclined to get in your corner. Why? Because they see that you believe in your goal and that you’re determined to achieve it. They believe you will commit to the process and respect and appreciate their input

If they think they’re going to be bulldozed or that their efforts will go to waste when you give up on your goal, they won’t want to help you. 

At the end of the day, forming a solid network of peers who trust and respect you will enrich what you are trying to achieve in life.

Believing in yourself doesn’t mean achieving everything by yourself. It means respecting yourself enough to let people help you. 

Books on personal power

Many great leadership books, including plenty on personal power, are well worth the read. Here are a few:

Personal Power by Tony Robbins

Personal Power teaches step-by-step strategies to overcome your limitations. In this practical book, you will complete small steps each day for 30 days to create real results. It is a powerful text that aims to inspire readers to awaken their full potential as human beings.

Robbins examines the mindset of successful people. He details the personal characteristics that lead them to achieve their goals and instructs the reader on how to “get out of their own way.”

Personal Power or Your Master Self by William Walker Atkinson

William Walker Atkinson was a celebrated thinker who put forth revolutionary ideas. He wrote an estimated 100 books, all in the last 30 years of his life. Personal Power or Your Master Self is the first installment in a 12-volume series on personal power. 

He believed that personal power is the foundation from which all skill and success stem. His personal power definition is: “The ability of strength possessed by the human individual, by which he does, or may, accomplish desired results in an efficient manner, along the lines of physical, mental, and spiritual effort and endeavor.” 

woman-reading-book-personal-power

Personal Power Through Awareness by Sanaya Roman

In Personal Power Through Awareness, Roman takes a more spiritual standpoint on the topic of personal power. 

She guides the reader to a gentle understanding of the relationship between the self and the outside world. All while advising them on how to stay grounded, balanced, and resilient by using the principles she explores. 

How to use your personal power

How much success and fulfillment you get from personal power depends on how you use it. 

We are all human, and we don’t always know how to use the internal resources we have ethically and effectively. So, it's important to regularly check in with yourself about how you’re using your personal power to influence and control others

Here are some tips on how to use your personal power successfully and responsibly: 

1. Acknowledge your personal power

Before you can really begin to use your personal power, you need to be aware of the power you have. And what type of personal power it is. Without this self-awareness, you cannot consciously put your power to use. Nor can you anticipate the consequences of it. 

For example, a person who is aware of their personal power can put their energy into networking with people who can advance their careers. They are also more likely to be aware of how people respond to their personal power in social situations. This awareness goes hand-in-hand with emotional intelligence. People with high emotional intelligence can perceive their own feelings as well as that of others.

2. Have integrity and consistency

Personal power, just like positional power, can easily be abused. It's important to examine your motivations for using your personal power to avoid compromising your integrity

Using your influence to coerce your colleagues or manipulate people into liking you is problematic and will likely end badly. Having a consistent moral compass and reliable behavior will let people know they can trust you and lead to a greater sense of self-respect. 

3. Don’t be egocentric

When we succeed professionally or socially, it's tempting to be ego-driven and fixate on our own achievements. Don’t forget that the principles of personal power emphasize the role of others in your success, and so should you. 

Acknowledge the colleagues that helped you get where you are, and be grateful for the loved ones who continue to support you. Appreciation is a two-way street.

4. Use it to motivate others

The wonderful thing about personal power is its potential to uplift not only you but those around you. Listen to your colleagues, lead your team by example, and offer support to those who need it. This will foster a positive mental attitude and a better working environment for all.

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The same is true for friends and loved ones. 

Inspiring those close to you to be the best versions of themselves is incredibly rewarding. The only thing better than personal success is watching someone you care about succeed.

Access your personal power for success

While we all have different strengths and weaknesses, we all have the potential to build our personal power. 

To activate your own personal power, there are a series of internal and external steps you must take. This journey looks different for everyone, but the underlying principles are universal. 

If you want to learn how to access your personal power, you’re not alone. BetterUp offers a wide range of coaching services catered to both organizations and individuals. 

Whether you want to advance your career or become an effective leader, we’re here to guide you on your journey of self-development.

Get in touch with BetterUp’s expert coaches today.

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Published December 20, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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