Power and the independent professional

Power can be complicated for freelancers and independents. You have power over your own business, but on client projects your power can less clear, jeopardising your ability to deliver.

How can you ensure you have the power you need to achieve the task in hand?

Within your own business you have power over your working hours, work style, the clients you work with, the equipment you use. Indeed, that control is a major reason people choose freelancing in the first place:

  • 70% of freelancers say that work-life balance was a top factor in deciding to freelance
  • … followed by “Desire to chose when I work” (62%)
  • … and freedom (56%)
  • 84% said the biggest benefit was a flexible schedule
  • 92% of freelancers said the freelance lifestyle is either extremely (55%) or somewhat (37%) important to them

(Research from Flexjobs. More, here.)

But, engaged on any client project, your individual power can be uncertain. You’ve been hired to deliver, but a lack of power can be a serious obstacle to requisitioning resources in support of the objective.

A better understanding of power can help you leverage the power you do have, or position yourself to gain the power you need to deliver your goals.

What is power?

With The Bases of Social Power, back in 1959, John French and Bertram Raven defined five forms of power. Raven later added a sixth and those six bases of power remain relevant today.

Reward power

This is the ability to give or deny rewards such as pay rises, bonuses, praise, recognition and performance feedback.

Coercive power

The capacity to coerce; to use force or levy punishment to ensure compliance.

Legitimate power

Legitimate power comes with the job (or not). It’s a function of the organisational hierarchy and often works hand in hand with reward and coercive power.

Referent power

This is based on how well the individual is liked or respected. Think of successful statesmen and women, entrepreneurs, entertainers etc.

Expert power

This form of power is based on an individual’s possession of specialised expertise, skills or talents. It’s likely to be freelancer’s initial source of power in a new engagement.

Informational power

This is the sixth form of power, added later. It is distinct from Expert power because it is based on facts rather than ability. As such, it can be transient: the keeper of the secret recipe has ultimate power … until he shares it with someone else, or it becomes obsolete.

Power and the freelancer

Of the six types of power, three mainly attach to position and three tend to attach to the person.

Legitimate, Reward and Coercive are all aspects of positional power. If you’re an interim manager, for example, your project role may be already endowed with significant levels of these. Similarly, some independent experts are appointed to head-up teams, with all the positional power that comes with that.

For many independents, however, it is the personal types of power that hold the greatest opportunity to get things done. After all, you were hired for your skills, experience and reputation (expert power).

Five ways to build project power

1. Build your reputation

It’s easier to get things done if you come into a project as a recognised expert, so invest in building your reputation ahead of the next project (see the recent article on that, here). Life is easier if people are looking forward to working with you.

In his book, Power, Jeffrey Pfeffer notes:

A great reputation can help you achieve great performance and vice versa. The trick is to be sure you do the things to build your reputation, have others tout you, and attract the kind of media coverage that can help build your power base.

2. Start on the right foot

Once you’re in, you’re in. Remember that old HR joke about the devil and the dead recruiter? “Yesterday we were recruiting, today you’re staff.”

It is much easier to get what you need before you’ve committed to delivering.

Back in March, Lord Falconer the former Lord Chancellor under Tony Blair, was in discussions to head up an antisemitism review for Jeremy Corbyn’s beleaguered Labour Party. Despite suggestions that he had already accepted the role, Falconer publicly refuted the claims (embarrassing the potential future client and stakeholders) and held out until he was guaranteed that he would have complete access to all party records.

3. Manage client relationships

The surest way to keep your position and to build your power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Power: Why Some People Have it – And Others Don’t, p31

Remember, it’s your job to make your client look great. You can build power, trust and reputation by keeping your client well-informed of progress, watching their back, taking care of the “small things”.

Find opportunities to demonstrate your expertise and achieve those early wins that smooth your future path.

Quid pro quo is powerful. Once you’re in role, do things for others. Find ways to be helpful (building referent power) and generate the almost irresistible sense of reciprocity in others.

And, don’t forget the sad truth that flattery actually works.

4. Give excellent performance

Success begets success. Delivering results (those early, quick wins) makes it much easier to get more resources. It enhances your reputation, building expert and referent power.

So, never be tempted to relax into a project or to adopt a passive-aggressive approach of “what do they expect if they won’t give me the resources”.

Above all, in all his doings a prince must endeavour to win the reputation of being a great man of outstanding ability.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter XXI

5. Act and speak with power

This is partly the old “fake it ’til you make it” or “act as if” technique. But, it’s about creating an aura of power.

In his book, Pfeffer devotes a chapter to Acting and Speaking with Power. He discusses the deliberate use of anger (rather than remorse), the use of posture and gestures, stage management, the power of the pause and the effective use of persuasive language (rhetorical techniques). It’s worth seeking out.

Rhetoric is a powerful tool and great speeches can define powerful leaders.

In 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Colonel Tim Collins gave a speech to his troops that made him famous around the world. It exudes power. Luckily, it was captured by a journalist and later recreated by Kenneth Branagh…

More generally, here’s Mark Forsyth on the power of rhetoric…

Audit your powers

Power gets thing done. As an independent, sovereign professional, your future success depends on your reputation, which depends on your ability to deliver results.

It makes sense, therefore, to look at any project opportunity and consider the sources of power that could increase your ability to get things done.

French and Raven’s framework is a great place to start, but also consider these other resources…

A better understanding of power will make you a more successful professional. Happy reading.

Photo by Azamat Zhanisov on Unsplash