Saturday, December 31, 2011

The five types of power

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power” Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) Politician. President of the United States.

What is “power” as a manager?  What powers do you have in the workplace and how should you use them?

In a classic study social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven developed a schema for sources of power and suggested there are five significant categories from which power derives:

  1. Legitimate – This is the power of an individual due to their position and duties within the organization.  Legitimate power refers to formal authority such as a boss and his subordinates.
  2. Personal/Referent – This power refers to the interpersonal skills of an individual and their ability to attract others and build loyalty. 
  3. Expert – Expert power derives from a person’s skills and knowledge.  In product development this refers largely to technical skills, but it also refers to expertise in other areas such as methodologies and patterns. 
  4. Reward – Reward power refers to the ability to give others gifts such as raises, promotions, time off, etc.  Rewards can come in all shapes and sizes and even calling out someone’s hard work in a group meeting can be a powerful reward.
  5. Coercive – This refers to the ability to instill negative consequences such as withholding rewards or enforcing some punishment.  This is generally the most obvious and least effective form of power.
Now let’s do a little exercise... 

Take a moment and write down the percentage of each of these powers that you currently use in your management style.  When you have completed this, write down what you feel an ideal percentage distribution would look like. 

Are you where you want to be?   I’d be surprised if you are.  When I first did this test about a year ago I know I wasn’t.  To understand more on the effectiveness of these types of power, let’s talk about each in more detail:

Legitimate power is easy to understand, but should only represent a small portion of your power portfolio.  Hierarchies (organizational, social, etc) form the basis for legitimate power.  But the power really arises from the position, not the person.  Remove the position and the power is gone.  Legitimate power is limited to situations where you have the legitimate authority to control.   This is certainly useful in some situations, but if you give it some thought you’ll realize how many of your daily interactions do not involve this power.

Personal power is one of the most powerful types of power available to you.  This power comes from one person liking and respecting another.  People with this referent power generally make others feel good and others have an attraction toward them.  Much of this power relies on an ability to identify with the other person in some way.  In some cases in the workplace this will come very quickly and easily.  In some cases it can be very difficult.  Afterall your team is probably not all just like you are (nor should they be).   So you will not have strong referent power over everyone you lead.  I believe that Referent power as the most important power basis. If a person likes and trusts you, helping you becomes a reward in itself regardless of any express reward or legitimate power relationship.  If you look back at some of the greatest leaders in human history such as Jesus, Mohamed and Ghandi these leaders all used mostly Referent power

Expert power as title suggests exists when others believe a leader has “expert” knowledge and skills.   As you demonstrate expertise you build respect with your team and your ideas carry more value.  You can probably think of some people on your team that may have expert power that are not in a position of legitimate power.  In software development expert power carries more weight than in some other industries.  Software engineers are often very technical and respect a boss that has the technical chops to really engage in technical discussions.  Therefore in software development expert power should be a strong component of your power portfolio.  However as a manger you should not expect to be an expert in everything.  The best managers hire people that are better experts in the areas the manager is not.  Further, expert power is highly specific and limited to the particular area you possess expertise in.  In management there are many other areas you will need to show leadership besides technical decisions.

Reward power is based on the fact that others will do what you want if they feel they will be rewarded for it.  “Meet our goals and we’ll get a bonus” for example.  But there are many other rewards such as a half day off, donuts in the morning or a better cubicle.  This initially seems like it might be the strongest form of power, but there are some drawbacks.  Firstly the reward must appeal to the person receiving it and everyone has different preferences and needs.  Secondly in the workplace a manager often does not have all the authority to make reward decisions.  Raises, promotions, bonsuses, stock, etc. are often based on performance of the company as whole, require multiple approvals and are based on policies set by others.  This leaves many things out of a manager’s control.  Even a CEO has to answer to the board, shareholders and customers.  Finally, reward power can weaken and lose effectiveness if used too often.  That box of chocolates you bought may seem like a great gift one day, but if given frequently becomes boring.

Coercive power is the opposite of reward power.  The leader has an ability to enforce penalties such as verbal abuse, reduction of privileges or poor task assignment.  The leader must have the actual authority to implement the penalty and the penalty must be something the follower actually cares about.  Coercive power is the weakest form of power available to you and should be the least used, though there are situations where it is necessary.  This power can be easily abused and must be used carefully.  It can lead to unhappiness which can spread into an array of problems for the entire team.  Too much reliance on this form of power would be a very impoverished way of management. 

One important thing to consider is the cultural and personal differences in the respect and usefulness of types of power.  For example in cultures like India and China legitimate power carries a lot more weight than in the United States.  And team members on your team will respond differently to different motivations.  As a manger you must understand your team members and utilize different powers on an individual basis.

All the sources of power are useful and each should have its own place in your management style.  Give some thought to the sources of power you are currently utilizing and under-utilizing and how you might adjust these for different people and situations to make 2012 a more effective year of management.  


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