6 Realities of Power

Let’s face it: businesses are run by people in power. And we know power comes from many origins. This allows those wielding it to use very different approaches and methods to get what they want and need. Much has been written and proclaimed about the various types of power in business. In this post, I offer a few of my own experiences and observations of how power can surface in business – and life.

This is post is certainly not the answer to all questions relative to the realities of Power in business; however, I know many of my clients have not thought of power in this way. So, I am hopeful this will help spark greater awareness, heighten our ability to recognize each type, and teach us how to use each type effectively in business situations. Your input and observations are welcomed and encouraged!

I believe there are basically 6 types of power, and each can surface at different times and demand different approaches in working with those individuals.

  • Coercive power is the most primitive type of power in the workplace. Coercive power shows up when a person threatens another with some type of punishment if something is not performed correctly. This type of power most often arises when the business is in a crisis or is somehow threatened. It can also arise when leadership has to make cuts in personnel as a result of management shifts and transitions. This is the most dangerous type of power and can be extremely manipulative and negative. When this arises, we simply must be careful where we walk and stay on the ‘right side’. Keep our noses clean – and do our jobs to the very best of our ability.
  • Legitimate power exists when the position or title that the person holds gives him the right to use that power. This is the most straightforward type of power – as it it tied to position, rank, and title. “It is what it is” – whether we agree with it or not. This type of positional power is enhanced when the organization has a clearly defined chain of command and organizational structure. This type of power is to be respected and honored.
  • Reward and Recognition Power is exactly as it sounds. Many employees are motivated by rewards and incentives to comply with directions from leadership. Examples of reward power include public praise, wage increases and job promotions as a result of jobs well done. Recognition power triggers that part of human nature which appreciates being recognized for high performance. Net: this is the ‘carrot’ approach of power and it can come from many places within an organization – from HR to the CEO to the Sales VP.
  • Referent Power is power gained by being admired by subordinates in the workplace. Never underestimate this type of power. Business leaders who have gained referent power often have done so as a result of entrusting their employees with increased responsibility and latitude in how to perform their jobs. These mentors and coaches in the workplace can be among the most powerful – as their followings are typically large and loyal. It is most often seen when employee turnover is low and in cultures where personal relationships are valued.
  • Expert Power comes from subject matter experts who are respected for their knowledge. Power from being an expert comes from experiences and training throughout their business career. Folks that work for these experts trust them to guide the team due to their vast expertise. Building subject matter expertise – in at least one area – is key if an executive wishes to differentiate themselves in this way.
  • Power through Association is power through all the people you know and who know you. These folks can influence on your behalf and become an advocate for you – through their associations.

Power is a reality in business and the world. Regardless of whether you are a CEO, an individual contributor, a teacher, or an entrepreneur – we have to take off the blinders and try to understand where individuals are and what drives them. Being able to recognize the source, origin, and fuel for each type of power helps us to navigate our own paths.

What are you thoughts? How have you met with these types of power in your career? What observations and/or tips can you share?

5 responses to “6 Realities of Power

  1. One of the most interesting things about POWER is that those who do not have it-sometimes seek it more than they should-for they have no idea of the huge responsibility that comes with it…..it may seem like something amazing to wield- but without proper training (and motivation) it can be very dangerous! …too whom much is given- much is expected…

  2. Thank you for the comments this week! Relative to the question of power and its effect on culture…..it is a given that the type of power and the use thereof has a direct correlation to the culture in an organization. Perhaps many of us have been in a coercive environment – I certainly have. This starts with an individual and expands from there. If it is accepted – or tolerated – this leads to pervasiveness throughout the organization. The classic metaphor is ‘polluting the water with one poison pill’. This can become the NORM – and culture is the manifestation of norms – which are nothing more than collectively accepted values translating into behaviors.

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