Formal vs. Informal Power: Two Paths to Social Success

Social success has a lot to do with attaining and maintaining a position of power within a group, from which you can exert a large amount of influence. But not all power is created equal. When talking about this topic, I find it useful to make on crucial distinction: the one between formal and informal power.

Formal and Informal Power: Definitions

Formal power comes from the official position one holds within an organization or social structure. It is properly recognized by some type of written contract or official agreement, and regulated by a strict set of rules that everyone in the organization or social structure knows and must obey.

Formal forms of power exist in politics, business, religion, but also in social structures like a sports team or a student’s club. The manager of a company has formal power. So does the captain of a football team. This type of power changes as one’s official position within a structure changes, which is why many people compulsively seek to better their position.

Informal power comes, not from an official position, but from the respect and appreciation one has earned from the members of a group. This respect and appreciation allow the individual to influence his or her peers in a way that others within the group cannot.

Informal power comes from a person’s internal qualities. An employee may gain informal power in his department by being known as very competent and skilled in what he does. A person may gain informal power by having integrity and being trustworthy. And another person may gain informal power by being likable and charismatic.

The Power of Informal Power

Making the distinction between the two kinds of power is essential. Because many people simply aren’t aware of the existence or influence of informal power, and they blindly compete with others for the limited amount of positions that provide formal power. They wanna be managers, and leaders, and bosses, and CEOs. However, informal power is not only real, but it can often be much more valuable than formal power.

Here’s an example I’ve seen transpire many times while coaching clients within companies and corporations.

There is a manager of a department of a company, and he has formal power in that department, stipulated by his job description. In the same department, there is also a guy who is a simple employee, but who is known to be very skilled at his job. Everyone goes to him for advice, and he is eager to help. He is friendly and likable, he encourages others, and he knows everyone by name, while the manager doesn’t bother with such ‘details’ and acts more like a dictator than a manager.

In such a situation, the manager has formal power, but this employee has a lot of informal power. So much informal power, in fact, that it may be worth more than the formal power of the manager. For instance, this employee may have such good relationships with his colleagues, that if he leaves to another company, half of them would follow him. And his manager knows this. Such influence is no small thing, and a smart manager would make sure that such an employee is treated well, because otherwise he might do some real damage.

It’s just one type of situation, but informal power can trump formal power in many ways, in all kind of organizations and social structures.

Leveraging the Two Types of Power

So, while formal power is good and not something to ignore, after this analysis I hope it is clear that many times, informal power is even more desirable.

Ideally, you wanna have both forms of power within a structure. Also, achieving informal power first is often a great way to then acquire formal power as well. But even if you can’t acquire formal power due to heavy competition and political games, you may be better off by acquiring informal power anyway.

How do you attain informal power? It takes three key ingredients, to which I’ve already alluded above:

1) Competence. There is no doubt that people respect competence, especially in a field relevant to them. Members of a debate club respect good debaters; members of a sales team respect good salespeople. So getting good at what you do within an organization or social structure is a great way to earn respect, and thus informal power.

2) Character. Great leadership books and courses regularly talk about the value of character. But its role is much more important in acquiring informal power than formal one, because, like competence, in triggers respect, as well as trust. Being honest, having integrity, being fair, having confidence, being resolute, this kind of character traits will get you far within any group.

3) Social Skills. Your social skills play perhaps the most important role. You wanna be able to engage people in interesting conversations, be witty and funny, and make them enjoy your presence. If they like you, they are much more eager to follow your lead. You also wanna be able to speak in a way that persuades, inspires and motivates people, which directly gives you more informal power over them.

Fortunately, you can cultivate these 3 traits and use them to gain informal power incrementally. Each day you can put in some work, and each day you can see your informal influence rise.

For top practical resources to help you develop your character and social skills, first I recommend you check out this video presentation I created, in which I’ll share with you some top-notch techniques for boosting your social confidence and social skills, based on my 8+years of experience as a confidence and communication coach.

Also, join my free social success newsletter, to get regular advice from me on improving your social competence, career and social life. I’m certain you’ll learn a lot from it.