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Power to Change the System: You’re Never Without It

As part of the World Breastfeeding Week 2018, we are urged to galvanize action to remember breastfeeding as part of good nutrition, food security, and poverty reduction. Understandably, most of us think of the first dictionary definition: to coat with a zinc-iron alloy. But there’s another definition: to stimulate or excite as if by an electric shock. An electric shock has power, which is the key to system-level change.

People often assume that I spent my hospital career being able to snap my fingers and command the entire facility to support breastfeeding. Nope. Not at all. Not even close. With the exception one miserable stint in administration, I spent nearly all of my hospital life in a staff position—staff nurse, charge nurse, or clinical nurse specialist. In those staff positions, I could change the system, yes. But certainly not because of any legitimate, snap-my-fingers power.

Maybe you can’t snap your fingers to evoke change, either. Do you ever feel powerless because you aren’t a boss? Yeah, it’s easy to fall into that trap.

But you DO have power—plenty of it! The key is to understand French & Raven’s classic (1965) model describing six different types.

Coercive power

Few of us find ourselves in this situation. Generally, a king or the government can coerce, that is, they can punish. For example, if you don’t pay your property tax, the government can garnish your wages.

Yet, if you’re a quality manager, or a policy-writer, for example, you can probably coerce someone into doing something they don’t want to do. Why so? Because you can have someone else punished.

Legitimate power

Bosses have the snap-your-fingers power to hire and fire, promote or demote, or give raises. (Now, since I my own business, I finally have this!) You can say “go” and your subordinate goes, or “do this” and she does it.

Your position gives you much legitimate power to make many rules about birthing or breastfeeding or pretty much anything else.

Reward power

This is often part of a boss’s role, but not always!

If you do the staff scheduling, you can give someone an extra weekend off. If you are a charge nurse or a team leader or something similar, you can probably make desirable assignments (even if it’s just “first lunch”), provide training opportunities, or arrange for some kind of meaningful privilege. I’ve often volunteered to cover someone else’s shift for Christmas or New Year’s Eve—but only for someone I liked!  That’s a reward, of sorts.

Expert power

Now, we’re talking, huh? If you have expertise, you have a ton of power. Notice if people say, “Oh, ask Susan, she always knows those kinds of things…” or “Wait until Beverly gets here, she’s always got a knack for doing that…” or “There’s no problem that Jan can’t solve.” If so, you’re an expert.

Maybe you can always grasp the priorities in critical situations, suggest solutions to thorny problems, or use solid judgment in complex situations. Maybe your boss always assigns you to the toughest cases!

If you have acquired the respect of your immediate colleagues, as well as colleagues in another discipline or perhaps those outside of your facility, you have influence because of your expertise.

Referent power

This happens if you are perceived as having a special “attractiveness”. Most celebrities have a physical attractiveness and/or charisma. You’ve voted for politicians you “like.” You’ve seen famous athletes endorse shoes and clothing—influencing sales.

Yet, you, too, may have referent power. Do you have a certain charm that makes everyone like you? Does everyone want to go to lunch with you? Can you make everyone laugh, even if the situation isn’t all that funny?

Or are you the CEOs’ niece?

Informational Power

I can’t see a situation where those of us in healthcare can withhold information that enables others to do their job.  But if you can—and do—that’s a form of power, too.

Those who lead by using the influence of their position (coercive or legitimate) tend to instinctively rely on those—and only those—power bases. The rest of us must rely on other power bases to influence and lead change in our facilities.

So, stop worrying about the fact that you don’t have legitimate “boss” type power. And remember: You are never without power.

I admit, for almost all of my career, I have relied my expertise to exert influence and lead change. Did I need to learn more about how to be a strong leader? Absolutely! Have I had to learn how to not sabotage myself as a leader? Yes! But realizing that I had power—and using it wisely—was almost always my key to making the needed system-level changes.

My point is, everyone has power in one form or another and you can use that power to take action to advance breastfeeding as part of good nutrition, food security, and poverty reduction.  And to help you do that, I want to offer you my final free resource to highlight World Breastfeeding Week. My special Raise Awareness All Year Round will give you 21 ways you can advance breastfeeding at any level and at any time of year.

If you have not already opted in to my free World Breastfeeding Week resources as a Marie Insider, please click here to get access now.  

Looking at those 21 ideas, how will you galvanize action to advance breastfeeding as part of good nutrition, food security, and poverty reduction this year?

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