With great power comes great responsibility: How to spot and manage power in organisations

It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Aside from the fact that old Abe forgot to mention the other half of the population, he makes a good point.

Power left unchecked and unbalanced can take a leader and an organisation to a dark place.

In a recent Masters lecture on power and influence, I took the students through an old but still hugely relevant model by John French and Bertram Raven. You can read the chapter they wrote in the book ‘Studies in Social Power’ here.

If you want a digest then read on…

What is it?

French & Raven identified five ‘power bases’ at play in an organisation. These are:

  1. Reward power i.e. the ability to reward others’ behaviour.
  2. Coercive power i.e. the ability to punish others’ non-compliance.
  3. Referent power i.e. power that comes from charisma and certain personality.
  4. Legitimate power  i.e. the ability to influence others simply by being in a position of power. This is also referred to as ‘position power’.
  5. Expert power i.e. the ability to influence others based on one’s special expertise.

French & Raven were clear that these five power bases have important features, namely:

  • They are dependent upon the beliefs of followers i.e. employees in an organisation
  • They are interconnected i.e. using of one type of power may affect a leader’s ability to use another
  • A person, particularly a leader, can operate from multiple bases of power

In 1965, Raven added a sixth power base – Information power i.e. the ability to influence through being privy to information that others don’t have.

Why is it important to understand it?

It underpins organisational politics.

Understanding your own power and that of others is vital if you’re to survive and thrive in organisational life.

Using this model can help during times of change. For example, when mapping stakeholders in order to develop a successful communication strategy.

It helps when entering in to negotiations, whether that’s two individuals discussing pay; or a number of organisations agreeing how money should be spent on an initiative in a local area.

For leaders, this model is an important reminder that your power is also dependent on how you’re perceived by your employees. In other words, overuse your positional power and you could get hoisted by your own petard further down the line!

How to spot it?

Reward power is a straightforward one to spot. Examples include pay, promotion, being put on to high profile projects etc. A word of caution to leaders/managers – if your employees don’t value the rewards you’re offering then you don’t actually have reward power as your base.

Coercive power can be a bit more insidious. Examples include humiliation and other forms of verbal abuse, the withdrawal of support, the taking away of privileges, demotions etc. It is often the very threat of a penalty (even if unsaid) that gives a leader this power.

Referent power is a bit more obvious. Think Richard Branson. This is another power base that is dependent on others’ perceptions of a leader.

Legitimate or Position power is most seen in bureaucratic and hierarchical organisations. It relies on the legitimacy of a job title e.g. chief executive, director, doctor etc. This is seen as giving a person the right to give orders.

Expert power isn’t just the enclave of those in senior positions.  A person holds this power if they have specific knowledge and expertise relevant to a particular job, task or project.

Information power is another one not just for those in senior positions (although they are more likely to be privy to sensitive information). This can often be seen at play between employees and customers, e.g. a benefits officer who has access to information that could determine whether or not a customer’s benefits are cut.


How can it be managed?

First, it starts with self-awareness. If you were to think about your own situation, which power base(s) are relevant for you? Is there one you use more than others?

Then become more aware of the wider organisation. What kind of power do you see at play in meetings? On projects? Is it used well or misused?

Recognising that power doesn’t just reside among those at the top of an organisation can be… well… empowering. Demonstrating that everyone holds a certain degree of power, regardless of role, can provide a stronger platform for an engaged and committed workforce.

And a final word of caution to those in leadership positions… it’s better to influence through a good case as opposed to referring to your job title. In other words, try not to start a sentence with “As the chief executive…” It can seriously undermine you. People should know your job title. You don’t need to remind them.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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