The use and abuse of power at work – Association (4/21)

By association, we gain personal worth without necessarily having to do anything in particular to deserve it. We rely on the body with which we are associated to perform and we bask in that glory.

Obtaining power and influence through association is at the heart of many conservative institutions. Fathers who attended a certain school may be offered the right to send their son to the same one, or may be heard to have ‘put his name down before he was born’. It may be far easier to do this than to join a lottery for a place at an even better school. The school is only relatively recently measured by the academic achievements of its pupils, but instead is seen as a launching point for a career because of the power it conveys ‘by association’.

The same applies, of course, to the college or university that the individual goes on to attend. If they make it to Oxford or Cambridge, then it is the college that counts. If it is to a lesser university such as Bristol or Aberdeen, then it may be the Hall of Residence that bestows prestige. There’s even an inverted snobbery around two places that Victorians might have sent their less-academic sons to – Camborne School of Mines and the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester.

Many students choose a university because of its prestige, rather than its quality in their particular field, knowing that they will later derive power by association. They may decide which companies to apply to, in the hope that once recruited, regardless of their personal performance, their CV will ‘look good’. One reason why class polarisation happens around universities is because students from poorer backgrounds, state schools and who are the first in the family to enter higher education, often don’t get advice about the longer-term prestige of certain institutions, especially in respect of particular disciplines.

Professional bodies try to acquire this prestige, as it appeals to prospective members, by purporting to have exacting entry requirements when in practice it is simply the colour of someone’s money that leads to their acceptance. Some, such as the “Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce” (RSA) in London, have been so successful at this in the past that, even though membership is effectively open to all, you will see otherwise highly esteemed individuals forego listing more substantial and significant memberships in favour of FRSA after their name. Other popular professional bodies that appear to convey similar kudos are the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of Directors.

For those who feel an affinity to a particular trade or profession, there are the Livery Companies which almost automatically lead to Freedom of the City of London. Then, of course, the ultimate in membership bodies are the London clubs. A few remain quite exclusive, but many have been forced to widen their net and today will accept almost anyone who is able to afford their fee and gets to know a couple of existing members.

Just as graduates may seek to join certain ‘blue chip’ companies, so those who have worked for them will draw on this to assume power by association. There is no firm definition of a blue-chip company, the term is simply applied to large, creditworthy businesses with well known brands. The precise membership of this ‘club’ is constantly changing but most have an enduring strength.

In many situations, the assumption is made that it is at the time of joining the ‘elite’ organisation that screening will have happened – such that only someone who is particularly good would be accepted there. Ironically, of course, it is mainly when we are recruiting that we assign an individual more power than their counterpart because of their previous associations, thereby perpetuating the myth that the individual is somehow deserving of their status.

Officers in the Army have a remarkably consistent way of speaking. While there are exceptions, and there has been a tendency to maintain a modicum of regional pronunciation, the Sandhurst dialect is widely recognised and instantly allows one officer to recognise another many years later when they meet around the boardroom table. (

Without doubt selection for, and being graduated by, Sandhurst, is one of the toughest screening processes that a young person is going to experience, so it is little wonder that so much kudos is attached to it. Power by association that will last a lifetime.

This process is by no means restricted to the educated, upper middle class. The military have also always imbued the troops with a regimental identity. It is well known that a significant proportion of the younger people entering the Forces have had an unsatisfactory childhood and the Regiment soon becomes a new family to them. They gain power by association with it and, in turn, make their own contribution to its ongoing reputation. There are countless small details that allow a former soldier to recognise one of their peers. Apart from physical bearing, ties, watch straps, pin badges, blazer buttons, and subtle verbal cues all play a role.

Any excuse to include a little Porridge…

Even the prison system offers power by association. It is said that there’s a hierarchy of establishments among prisoners – the tougher the establishment the tougher you must be perceived to be by the ‘establishment’.

Power by association is totally dependent on the audience. In some sectors of society other forms of association have given them power. Obviously this is one of the forms of power exerted by membership of gangs. Gang membership provides the protection and sense of belonging that a family could give as well as a sense of identity.

At the end of the day, power gained by association is simply a form of false reputation, however, to work within some institutions and professions it is essential in order to conform to the culture. It might be worthwhile reviewing your own ‘associations’ and deciding whether the power that you derive from them is appropriate or not.

I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

Best wishes

Behind the scenes, helping those of power see themselves, other people and situations differently

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