Formal vs. Informal Power: Two Paths to Social Success

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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.

Why Trying to Look Cool Fails and What to Do Instead

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A lot of people wanna be cool, and even more people want at least to appear cool to others. This is probably why much of the self-help advice out there focuses on how to adopt the external demeanor of a cool person, in order to create the perception of being cool.

It’s not an entirely bad strategy; a “fake it till you make it” approach can work sometimes, in some situations. However, there are some serious problems with trying to look cool, which I’ve discovered both through my own experience and those of my communication coaching clients.

So I wanna talk about these problems, and provide a much better alternative to trying to look cool. The major problems are three in number:

1. Improper Social Calibration

Successfully appearing cool is not only about adopting a set of edgy behaviors; it’s also about using them at the right time and at the right intensity. These behaviors need to be properly calibrated to the social situation you’re in. And if they don’t come from the inside, good social calibration is very hard to pull off.

It’s very common for men and women trying to look cool to go over the top with some actions and gestures. For example, many guys read online that, in order to look cool or “alpha”, they should take up a lot of space, especially when sitting down. But they’ll seriously overdo it. That’s how you’ll see some guy at a party, stretching on a sofa like a pancake, taking up three spots, and thinking he’s being cool. He’s not being cool; most likely he just looks like a weirdo.

2. Behavioral Leakage

Behavioral leakage is a very interesting psychological concept, which says that if you try to act out of character, your true character and emotional state will tend to come out in subtle ways. They will leak out, and do so repeatedly, despite your desire to repress them.

For instance, during a conversation with a member of the opposite sex, maybe you act confident and cool, and maybe they buy it for a few minutes. But at some point they make a teasing remark about you (maybe comment on your beer belly or something), and for a few seconds, your true insecure self involuntarily comes out. It can be something subtle like breaking eye contact, fidgeting, or nervous laughter. Either way, the person will probably tell that you’re actually not as confident as you initially seemed. Even if you get back into your act really fast, your insecurity has leaked out.

3. The High Energy Drain

Since trying to appear cool through deliberate actions entails playing a role, it will be very demanding on your mental and physical energy. It’s hard to keep up an act, even for a short while. Many of my coaching clients have shared with me that when they were acting out of character, even a 45-minute conversation with another person for a coffee was exhausting.

Since the energy drain of trying to look cool is high, it means you can’t keep up the act for too long. Eventually, the large part of your real self will come out with bells and whistles, especially as you interact repeatedly with someone and you end up having longer interactions. And even if you can keep up the act, it takes all the fun out of socializing.

So, due to improper calibration, behavioral leakage and the high energy drain, trying to appear cool to others is not a good strategy. What’s the alternative then? There is a very good one, which takes more time, but has a huge return on investment.

Develop the Mental State of Cool

Our mental state influences our behavior to a large degree. People who naturally behave and look cool do so because they are in a mental state conducive to that, which I call the mental state of cool.

What does this state imply? First and foremost, I’d say it implies feeling confident and composed in social situations. That’s the main thing. It also involves liking yourself and having a positive self-image, which relates closely to social confidence. And it’s also about feeling okay being yourself and expressing your unique side in social settings, while at the same time seeking to stay connected to other people’s needs.

When you have this kind of a mix of attitudes, your social behavior simply oozes cool. And it’s not the kind of superficial cool that comes with having the latest fashionable smartphone; it’s the kind of meaningful cool reflected in a centered, expressive and appealing demeanor.

Developing the mental state of cool does not happen overnight. It takes some time, and perhaps some guidance. You need to work on your beliefs system and automatic emotional reactions to reach a perpetual mental state of cool. But it is definitely worth it; because actually being cool is 100 times better than just pretending to be cool.

I’ve been helping people develop their social confidence and the state of cool for almost a decade now. If you wanna learn how to do it, I encourage you to check out right now this instructional video I created, in which I’ll share with you some of my top psychology advice for building social confidence and becoming a cool, charismatic person.

Also, join my free social success newsletter, where I share regularly tried and tested techniques for improving your confidence and your social skills.

Personal development usually works best from the inside out. Build your social confidence, learn how to manage your mental state in social situations, and the right behavior and right results will follow naturally.