Power in Organizations

Positional Power and Personal Power

In most organizations power and influence are a mix of both personal and positional power. Both personal power and positional power are complex subjects which we will investigate further.

Positional Power

In structural organizations your place in the hierarchy defines the legitimate power you have. For example, in an idealized military organization, rank determines who gives orders and who takes them. There are less formal sources of positional power, making this concept much more than where a role is located on an organizational chart. In fact, positional power is a mix of different factors, including the following:

Positional Relevance – how critical you are to achieving an organization’s goals. An employee’s positional relevance changes based on the challenges and goals that a company is facing. A corporate lawyer’s positional relevance increases if the firm faces a lawsuit. Once that lawsuit is resolved and sales growth becomes a more important goal, the head of the sales team would have more positional relevance than the corporate lawyer.

Positional relevance is also called dependency because it conceptualizes how the organization depends on an individual. The more dependent the organization is on a worker, the higher positional relevance that worker has. The more substitutes that are available to an organization to replace or supplement the role of an individual, the less dependent the organization is on that individual.

Positional Centrality – bridging different people in an organization. You become more powerful if you connect more people in an organization. They need you to communicate with each other and respect your opinions about others.

Autonomy – your ability to make your own decisions.

Visibility – how often you receive credit and public recognition for success and efforts.

Formal Authority – what your job description says you do and control. The organization explicitly defines whom you can manage, hire and fire. It also assigns budgets and projects explicitly to different people.

For the most part, formal authority falls under legitimate power in the six sources of power described by French and Raven. In addition, formal power over bonuses and other positive outcomes falls under reward power and the threat of penalties and firing falls under coercive power.

Yes, formal authority is important, but positional power stems from other factors, too. Positional power is more than just your rank in an organization. Your job helps define the power you have in ways beyond the number of employees who report to you and sets limits as much as those who can promote or fire you. 

Personal Power

A manager’s power and influence can arise out of relationships as much as it can from her position in an organization or managing her leadership image. What is influence? It’s a person’s potential to cause others to act according to that person’s desires. Persuasion is communication of influence.

What if you have no control over your position in an organization, have no formal authority for rewards or coercion, and cannot change your appearance as an expert? How can you hope to influence or persuade others?

Fortunately there are different tactics which can be used to build personal power:

Liking. People will do things more easily for people they like. Managers who need to persuade employees, customers and suppliers should try to become more liked.

This isn’t just personal chemistry: there are many reliable ways to become more liked. First, people who are physically more attractive are more likable. For this reason, managers should take care of their physical appearance as a way to increase their persuasive abilities. Next, people like people who remind them of themselves. When trying to influence others, try to establish common ground and common interests to become more liked.  Another way to become more liked is to have frequent contact: strangers are less liked than familiar people. Finally, winners are liked more than losers. For this reason those who wish to be liked should portray themselves as winners instead of as losers. 

Reciprocity. People like to return favors. This characteristic does not always make sense and can be manipulated. Managers can exploit this by doing favors for others, even favors which were never asked! By “gifting” others, they make others feel as though they are in the giver’s debt and need to do something in return.

Reciprocity can also be used to manipulate others because it doesn’t always take the cost or the size of the favor into account. Thus, people will sometimes repay small favors with large favors.

Managers can even use reciprocity in negotiations. A manager can demand more than they could realistically need initially, and then, as a favor, reduce the unrealistic request and demand some favor in return. The unrealistic initial request was never a possibility, but it created a perceived favor which can be used as a bargaining chip.

Consistency. People will try to live up to their past statements. Managers can use this behavior by getting others to commit or promise early. The more explicit and public the promise, the more a person is motivated to make good on it.

This is not a legal trick or a consequence of contract law. Even if the statement or promise is not a legal contract, people try to be consistent with what they have said or pledged. People often perceive inconsistency as proof of a weak character, and they would rather be strong and true.

Social proof. People are more comfortable doing what other people are doing than doing something different. They can be influenced by providing them with examples of other people engaging in an activity, and they will be more likely to do that activity themselves.

People respond to social proof because they believe that other people who engage in the behavior know what they are doing. They also feel pressure to fit in with what is considered normal behavior. Social proof is also persuasive because seeing the actions of others is given more weight than other influences which are less recent or less visible.

Authority. People who appear as authorities are questioned less than others. Followers will obey authority figures more easily than those who do not appear to be authorities. Managers who wish to lead others should consider how they can appear as authorities to others. This influence tactic is linked to expert power, one of the six sources of power.

There are many explanations for why authority works as a weapon of persuasion. Growing up, we have been conditioned to respect parents, teachers and other authority figures. As children, we are often rewarded for following rules set by authority figures, and this feedback cultivates a tendency to follow authority figures.

As adults we often find ways to justify our respect for authority figures. Many people assume that authority figures earned their positions through merit and should be listened to because they have proven they are winners. This is not always true, but many people make this assumption.

Scarcity. People are often persuaded to act based on scarcity. It is easier to get someone to agree to a limited-time-only offer or to buy something that is “going fast” than it is to get someone to make a decision for something they think will be around for a while.

Managers can portray opportunities as rare for employees to make them feel special and to motivate them to seize those opportunities.

Power in Organizations526Power in Organizations