Power in the workplace


With this issue’s focus on the idea of “power,” I thought I would examine the subject of power in the workplace or the use of power in business in this month’s column.

In doing my research, I found several interesting descriptions of power. One quote comes from the late Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom. “Power is like being a lady,” she said. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” One business psychologist, Nicole Lipkin, noted that “power tends to get to people’s heads; we are not really trained to handle power well.” My casual observation would be that power is ultimately described as having influence over the people and environment around you.

Robert Green, the author of five books on power, once described power this way: “Power is the measure of the degree of control you have over circumstances in your life and the actions of the people around you. It is a skill that is developed by a deep understanding of human nature, of what truly motivates people, and of the manipulations necessary for advancement and protection. Power works, but when it is indirect — never coercing people; instead, getting them to voluntarily align with your interests.”

I, like most people, have worked with bosses who handled power well and those who didn’t. Those who did were respected and usually even liked; those who didn’t were usually shown the door. As a community of small businesses where the staff is limited, resources directed toward management training scarce, and mentors slim to none, I’d like to offer up a review of the various forms of power in the workplace. I do this in hopes that it will help Hilton Head Island and Bluffton business leaders take inventory of themselves and adjust their “power style” to create more positive outcomes. In doing this self-inventory, remember that “power style” is situational and no single approach will work in every circumstance.

Consider the following seven types of power introduced by psychologists John French and Bertram Raven way back in 1959:

Legitimate power is the best-known workplace power. It is simply when a “boss” has control over people who are lower in the organizational tree. When you have this type of power, it is usually given to you, and if not properly exercised it can be just as easily taken away. Legitimate power requires that those lower in the organization believe the “boss” has earned this power.

Coercive power is a real problem at all levels of the workplace, but it is most common at entry-level manager positions. Coercive bosses lead through threats and force, which are unlikely to provide long-term positive outcomes because employees do not respect or feel loyalty toward these types of bosses. This is akin to bullying in the workplace.

Expert power is achieved through the perception that one possesses superior skills or knowledge. Expert power is real in the workplace and may or may not involve the title of manager or executive. Expert power requires an individual to continue to invest in learning and improving skills.

A co-worker who possesses needed or wanted information is wielding informational power. This is short-term power, as eventually that information will need to be shared. These days, it is much harder to exercise informational power because in many cases, all we need to do is ask Siri and voila, the information is available at our fingertips.

Reward power is when a leader tries to win favor and loyalty with raises, promotions and awards. When you start talking about an individual’s financial livelihood, power takes on a whole new meaning. Unfortunately, this power practice can lead to big issues down the road when the gravy train stops.

Connection power is exercised by gaining special favor or acceptance from another powerful person in an organization. It’s all about office politics, and that never ends well. You are tying your future to the apron strings of another.

Finally, there is the real basis for workplace power, at least in my mind: referent power. This power is exercised by the ability to convey a sense of personal acceptance or approval. People with natural charisma, integrity and other positive qualities exercise it. Co-workers will run through walls both “with” these types of leaders and “for” them. Referent power is never granted; it is earned by doing the right things and being a great communicator. Organizations that encourage leaders with referent power stand the test of time.

Power is what drives politics, business and society as a whole, and we have all seen the good, the bad and the ugly of what power can do. Remember that even the least powerful among us can hold sway over those who only think they have power.

Elihu Spencer is a local amateur economist with a long business history in global finance. His life work has been centered on understanding credit cycles and their impact on local economies. The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources considered reliable but accuracy cannot be guaranteed.