Power in the workplace – what managers need to know
Managers need to understand what ‘power’ means in an organisational sense and how to use it productively and ethically
Monday, 20 February 2012
Organisations need power to function well. Power influences people’s behaviour and attitudes, it allows managers to determine a course of events and is an important contributor to change leadership and dealing with resistance. People need power to get their jobs done and to meet objectives.
However, managers often deny themselves a comprehensive understanding of what ‘power’ means in an organisational sense and how to use it productively. They have allowed themselves to be persuaded that power is an unsavoury notion – an instrument which ‘powerful people’ use to obtain personal gain at the expense of others. This narrow interpretation focuses on the use of a particular type of personal power only. It belies the scope for people to use their personal power for good in the workplace and does not reflect the significance of organisation-related power as an enabler of change and progress.
An appreciation of how power operates in workplaces in general, and how it is applied in your workplace in particular, is essential for managing day-to-day as well as for leading change effectively. To understand the full spectrum of power relations in organisational life managers must move beyond notions of individual power, and relative powerlessness, to also appreciate the significance of the power which is embedded in organisational structures and systems.
The power of the individual
Power can mean simply – a person’s ability and capacity to do something. For example, when we say that a paramedic did all within her power to save a person’s life we are referring to the power of her expertise. So-called ‘expert power’ is operating when there is dependence on specialist knowledge, as is frequently the case in organisations. Engineers, scientists, finance specialists, HR and other professionals, all hold and use power based in their specialist expertise.
Individual power is also associated with a person’s political or social standing and their associated ability to control the behaviour of people who want to associate with the source of power. When ‘referent power’ is at work one person is able to control another’s behaviour because that person wants to be like, or be liked by, the power holder; for example when a person wants to ‘please the boss’ for whatever reason. It is also at work in circumstances of ‘charismatic leadership’ where, consciously or sub-consciously, people want to possess the desirable abilities and characteristics of the admired person. Effective leadership is, at least in part, enabled by referent power.
Individuals’ power and how they apply it can lead to very different outcomes. For example, a ‘forceful personality’ might use a coercive approach to influencing others whereas, in a similar situation, the ‘relationship builder’ is more likely to depend on their sociable style and the power of strong interpersonal skills.
The application of personal power has its limitations and risks. Whilst a coercive style might get the job done quickly, it can easily be experienced as bullying or harassment. And the seductive qualities of individual charisma can foster dependence on higher authority and blind faith that the charismatic leader gets it right all the time!
To be optimally effective, managers must extend their understanding of power to appreciate the power embedded in organisational systems and processes and its potential.
Power in organisations
Power takes on an additional meaning within organisations. So-called ‘legitimate power’ refers to the formal authority associated with a particular role in an organisational system. Legitimate power arises out of the organisation and the structures, systems and processes which define how it operates. The power associated with formal authority can include the power to make certain decisions and the power to instruct another person to do something – but only within the context of the organisation’s work.
For legitimate power to operate effectively, every position in an organisation’s structure should be associated with a clear statement of the formal authority attached to that position. And the formal authority should be aligned with the responsibilities of the role. Managers need to be aware that a mismatch between responsibilities and delegated authority can seriously inhibit team and organisational performance.
As an example, successful growth of an entrepreneur’s business led to his decision to hire a general manager rather than continue to manage operations himself. His intention was that this step would free him to pursue further growth by acquisition. The general manager was made responsible for all functional areas but the entrepreneur retained control of all key decision-making and involved himself in many aspects of day to day operations. Realising that insufficient authority had been delegated to him, the general manager was left to depend on the force of his strong personality to try and negotiate a better arrangement with the entrepreneur. The relationship quickly degenerated and they parted company.
A far more effective approach would have been for the entrepreneur to make clear what authority (legitimate power) the general manager had in the areas of responsibility delegated to him, and to put in place performance management processes which would enable progress to be tracked, without unhelpful interference.
Legitimate power is usually associated with documented policies and procedures which provide the framework within which decision-making takes place. So, a manager might have the power to ‘hire and fire’ but must do so within the constraints of policies and procedures, which in turn often reflect the laws with which the organisation must comply.
Managers should pay close attention to two aspects of legitimate power:
- Ensure that you are clear about the limits of your authority and that it is adequate given the scope of your responsibilities. A mismatch indicates the need for a constructive conversation with your manager. For more on how to do this see Managing Upwards).
- Make sure that those for whose work you are accountable have the legitimate power they need to achieve the outcomes you expect. Also ensure that you have adequate performance management processes in place.
For more on how to approach this see the Professionals Australia Management Guide Performance Management: Principles, Practice and Pitfalls.
A discussion of power at work would be incomplete without reference to the closely related concept of ‘empowerment’. Empowerment is about employee participation in decision-making and is often promoted as a solution to change resistance. The term refers to the dissemination of power to those whose commitment to decisions is needed.
Empowerment interventions can work extremely well when carefully planned and implemented. They can also become a source of great frustration for workers and for the managers who introduce them. A key factor in successful outcomes is close attention to the question of what legitimate power (formal authority for decision making) is being delegated and whether it is adequate given desired results. Successful outcomes from empowerment programs also depend on people having the power associated with having the right information. For more on the topic of employee participation see the Professionals Australia Management Guide Employee Participation.
By way of example, the CEO of a regional library corporation understood the importance of empowering staff across the organisation to participate in transforming the organisation’s culture. A recently completed five year strategic plan had involved extensive consultation with staff, although final decisions about its form and content had been made by the executive leadership team and the board.
The empowerment initiative began with staff workshops to ensure that all staff members were clear on their expected contribution to the strategic plan’s realisation. These were followed by adjustments to team leaders’ and staff members’ delegations, ensuring that they had the authority necessary to make appropriate decisions without reference to higher authority. In parallel, the performance management system was strengthened to make sure that adequate informal as well as formal feedback processes were in place. This was to ensure that the newly disseminated power was being applied wisely and that staff were adequately supported in the cultural transition.
In our growing knowledge economy, empowerment make a great deal of sense. But successful outcomes require both appropriate application of personal power and adjustments to the authority attached to people’s positions – their legitimate power.
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About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development, undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative approach, coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
The descriptions of power in this article are references to the work of social psychologists; John French and Bertram Raven whose classification of ‘bases of power’ is widely cited in management and leadership texts. Their seminal work is acknowledged here.