We often understand power to work in institutions like this.

A pyramid of people ranging in power

A person with the highest authority at the top has the most power, and the people at the bottom have the least. In reality it is often not so simple.

Power works in mysterious ways: Institution X

This is an organisations’ official decision making structure. In theory, if you want to work with them, you would build a relationship with Tina. Perhaps you would try to get a meeting with Lawrence and then work your way to Tina.

In reality the system of power works like this:

Pyramid of power revealing power is not as we always assume

Tina certainly has positional authority, but it is Shirley who really has the most power here. Shirley has the relationships and brings in the money. You would find this out once you start speaking to folks. The organisation can not run without Shirley and her rich relationships. Tina turns to Shirley not the other way around. If you go into this institution and get a yes from Tina, it doesn’t mean much unless Shirley is on board; upset Shirley and you are done for.

Paul is at the bottom of the official power structure, but in reality they are significantly relationally powerful. Paul is loved and trusted by staff. They organise all the social activities and knows everyone’s birthday. Tina relies on Paul to make her look like she gives a fudge. This means Paul gets invited to things that Carol, for instance, never gets invited to: this fudges Carol off a lot. Tina over-shares with Paul, so Paul knows lots about the goings on, and the interests of the organisation.

Lawrence who certainly has positional power, is weak relationally. He is known as a bully. You want to be off his radar because Lawrence will make everything much harder for you. Lucky for you no-one likes Lawrence, so they will help you navigate around him.

If we really wanted to get to know this organisation and persuade them to work with us, we would go to Paul first. Paul would help us know who to speak to, or what we need to do to impress Shirley. We then meet Shirley and hopefully get them on board. We now have the power to get sign off from Tina, who officially has the final say.

As you can see, there is tension between how things are supposed to work and how they do in reality. People at the top of the pyramid are still in a position of authority and so we relate to them, but how we relate to them, and who unofficially has the final say, is only learnt when you get to know the people.

Different leaders

Tina is a positional leader; someone with authority because of their rank in the organisation. Paul is a relational leader, they have the people power following to make things happen, or stop things from happening. We also look at money power (Shirley) within institutions; who has the money to start/stop action.

Look at the groups

Sometimes it can be a group instead of an individual. Which groups within an institution/work-place/fill-in-the-blank has the most influence? It could be the book club, the choir, the Thursday football kick about crew. Who goes to those groups? Break them down. Who is relating to who?

Next steps

Look at the spaces you are working in, and through your 1-to-1s, really get to understand who has the relational, positional and money power. Whose word matters? Who do you need to be careful not to upset, and who is the person that is going to gather the people? A way to find this out is to ask people, “who do I need to talk to around here to get something done?” or “who is the person you turn to when you have a problem”. Go meet those people.