Sources of Power

by Dr. Terry Stimson

French and Raven developed what is regarded as a classic scheme for categorizing the various bases of power. Their work was first presented in an article in Studies of Social Power in 1959, titled "The Bases of Social Power". They identified five distinct bases of power: legitimate, reward, coercive, expert and referent. These five power bases were expanded on by Hershey and Blanchard in their text, "Management of Organizational Behavior" (1982) in which they added two more bases of power that are relevant to this discussion. The two additional power bases are: connection and information. The seven power bases can easily be separated into two broad categories of power: positional and personal

Positional Power

Legitimate power (sometimes called authority or formal power) is that which is derived from the person's position in the organization. It exists because organizations find it advantageous to assign certain powers to individuals so that they can do their jobs effectively. All managers have some degree of legitimate power.

Reward power is based on the individual's ability to reward desirable behavior. It stems partly from legitimate power. Managers because of their positions have control over certain rewards, such as pay increases, promotions, work schedules, status symbols and recognition awards, which they can use to reward desirable behavior.

Coercive power is the opposite of reward power, and is based on the ability of the individual to sanction (punish) or prevent someone from obtaining desirable rewards. Rewards and punishment are powerful motivational tools, and leaders are generally better served by the exercise of reward power than by the exercise of coercive power. But only if reward power is used effectively. Look at these three types of power as POSITIONAL power and conferred on one from the ORGANIZATION, e.g., they come with the position of manager, and each manager has at least some of each of the three "powers of office." The remaining four, however, are in a different domain entirely.

Personal Power

Expert power derives from having knowledge that is valued by the organization or individuals with whom the person interacts. Expertise in a particular field or at problem solving or at performing critical tasks are types of expert power. Expert power is personal to the individual who has the expertise, hence it is different from the other three sources of power previously mentioned. However, the possession of expert power may be the basis for rising to a management position in the area of the expertise, now providing the incumbent with expert power as well that legitimate, reward and coercive power.

Referent power results when the individual engenders admiration, loyalty and emulation to the extent that the person gains the power to influence other. Charismatic leaders have referent power. They have a vision for the organization that they lead, strong convictions about the correctness of the vision, and great confidence in their ability to realize the vision, and are perceived by their followers as agents of change.

Connection power is more commonly referred to as "networking" these days. It is who you know, vertically and horizontally, both within and outside the organization. This may be referred to in some circles as the "Old Boys Club" and represents many of the political dynamics that make up organizations.

Information power is a power that can be either personal or positional. A manager should have more information power than his or her direct reports but it isn't always the case. As a result, an individual that is actively involved in the "grapevine" often has more accurate information than the manager. The "grapevine" is thought to be primarily rumor but, when studied, the "grapevine" has proven to be about 80% correct. Therefore, the person in the organization with the most reliable information is thought to have quite a bit of power.

A wise leader realizes that in order to be an effective leader he/she can not rely exclusively on positional power. There is a delicate dance that must take place between positional and personal power for a manager to be considered an effective leader.

The fascinating thing about power is that people who hold it are expected to use it or they risk losing respect for not exercising power. When Reagan was president he was an example of a person that totally fulfilled the role of the powerful president, almost like royalty. While at the same time, Carter, who made a big deal out of carrying his own bags, was not perceived as having a lot of personal power. It is a delicate balance but people do need to exercise their legitimate power. Regardless of whether a person is the CEO or the secretary they are expected to exercise their power. Power is a neutral tool, so exercising the power does not have to be a negative action. Rather, an individual needs to use their legitimate power to do their job more effectively.

I always appreciated the words of Harry Truman..."when your term of public office is over you put away the tools (power) the public has given you since the tools are not for your personal use but rather to help you do your job"...or words to that effect...this is my interpretation. I think managers think they are the power in much the same way that politicians believe they have the power rather than the "tools" to do their job. When managers think they have positional power because of who they are rather than the position they hold in the organization, they are headed for trouble.

Power is a neutral tool which can be used for positive or negative outcomes. I found from my research that when power is treated as an opportunity to do good for others and the organization, everyone benefits. In many respects power is like love, the more it is shared, the more it grows. Many managers have trouble sharing power for fear they are giving away a scarce resource and once power is given away it is lost.

Questions for your consideration:

1. What are your dominant power characteristics and how do they assist you in influencing others in the workplace?

2. What power characteristics do you prefer to see in those who oversee your work?

3. How is the concept of empowerment handled in your organization?

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