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View the documentPower, influence and personal empowerment: making a difference back on the job
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Power, influence and personal empowerment: making a difference back on the job




Topic: Personal empowerment: making a difference Back on the job

Time required: Approximately 2 - 3 hours

Management training, if it is to have any impact, must be translated into greater personal effectiveness by the participants when they return to the organization. Key to this effectiveness is a sense of empowerment - a belief that the individual can make a difference. This session is designed to help individual participants better understand the various power bases they represent in the organization and how these can be tapped to help them be more effective.


1. Deliver a short lecture on the various types of power that are potentially available to managers and how managers can be more effective in various relationships within their organizations.

2. Have each participant complete the self assessment instrument on Personal Empowerment. (This is based upon the various categories of power outline in the course materials, so these categories need to be explained prior to the completion of the questionnaire.)

3. Ask participants to join one or two others to discuss, in depth, their responses to the self assessment questionnaire. It is important not to rush the participants on this task. They need time to reflect on their responses to the self assessment.

4. Complete the session by reconvening the participants and asking a few individuals to comment on the exercise and how it might impact upon their effectiveness in the organization.



It is a subject that we rarely talk about. And yet, power is at the core of most organizations and the way they operate. Let me speculate for a moment why power is a topic that often gets ignored in management training.

First, many of us feel that power is something someone else possesses in the organization, but not me.

Second, power often conjures up unpleasant experiences in each of us as organizational members. I personally have lots of battle scars to show others from my bouts with power during my professional career.

Third, the use of power, or the lack of it, often has negative consequences in organizations, resulting in control over others or denying them something they would like to have or do.

Finally, even the use of the word, POWER, puts fear into some people. Consequently, it is a topic rarely discussed during courses of this kind.

There are obviously other reasons why power, as a topic of discussion, gets swept under the management training rug but I am suggesting we address it head on. I am going to assume that power and influence are: legitimate, viable resources; potentially available at all levels of an organization; and should be used by individuals to get things done.

The first concern I have about power is how to define it so we can all be working on the same frequency. After all, power is a bit like St. Augustine’s view of time in his day. “We all know perfectly well what it is - until someone asks us.”


Power resembles a pile of miscellaneous clothes at a hawker’s stall. It is hard to know what is available or whether it fits, until you sort it out. Power comes in a lot of different colours and styles. Here are just a few ways to categorize power.

French and Raven have come up with some categories of power that are useful from a management perspective.1 They categorize power as either reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, expert or information and define them in the following manner.

(a) Reward Power is based upon B’s belief that A can provide rewards-promotions, favors, recognition, access to material and other resources.

(b) Coercive Power rests with B’s perception that A has the ability to punish - to inflict pain, reprimand, demote, and take away privileges.

(c) Legitimate Power is based upon holding a particular position, title or office in an organization. The position gives that person the right to exert power over others.

(d) Referent Power is based upon B’s identification with A who possesses personal traits that engender such responses as respect, obedience, and allegiance.

(e) Expert Power comes from B’s belief that A possesses some special knowledge, skill or expertise.

(f) Information Power is based upon B’s belief that A has information or access to information that is important to him.

1 French and Raven, “The Bases of Social Power” in D. Cartwright (ed) Studies in Social Power (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan 1959).

To these six categories of power by French and Raven, I want to add two more that are commonly experienced in organizations.

(g) Connection Power is based upon B’s belief that A has connections with influential or important people.

(h) Catalytic Power resulting from the ability to combine two or more bases of power, each of which, by itself, may be insufficient to produce results.

Of these bases of power, three (reward, coercive, and legitimate power) focus on the power holder and his or her ability to change the behavior of another individual despite resistance by that individual. The remaining four types of power (information, referent, expert, and connection) place part of the success of the power holder on the perceptions that others hold about him or her.

Before we consider the more practical matter of how to work with power as an organizational and personal resource, it may be useful to look at one or more academic attempts to categorize power sources.

Mary Cavanaugh, in an indepth study of trends in literature about power, identifies five distinct approaches to power and its manifestations.2 They are:

(a) Power as a characteristic of the individual. As one writer commented, “Tower is an attribute of man. It does not exist without a holder.” This approach to power grows out of individual motivation and recognizes the importance of the individual as a catalyst in the manifestation of power. The pivotal issue, in this concept of power, is interaction with the environment rather than interaction with other people.

(b) Power as an interpersonal phenomena. This concept of power places its emphasis within the boundaries of an interpersonal relationship - the ability of one individual to move forces within another. This approach requires that the role of the target in the power relation be considered. It recognizes the reciprocal nature of power - that power, when exercised, can and often will result in counter-power.

(c) Power as a commodity. The commodity viewpoint puts power into perspective as an investment - something to be acquired and expended in relation to its trade offs, costs and consequences. For example, the higher the costs of exercising power, the less likely it is that an individual or organization will involve its use.

(These three conceptual frameworks concentrate on power as an individual attribute or as an attribute of interpersonal or interorganizational relationships.)

(e) Power as a casual construct. This approach links power with cause. Specific behavior, by the source of power, will elicit certain responses from the target of the power. The greater the probability that the source of power can evolve specific responses from the target, the higher the degree of power that can be ascribed to that source. This is an attempt to put power into a quantitative perspective.

(f) Finally, Cavanaugh describes power as a philosophical construct. This final category addresses several issues of power such as (a) the morality or amorality of power; (b) power in relation to values and value systems; and (c) the relationship between power and responsibility. While managerial power is often manifested in the previously defined categories, it is this one which is used, in many cases, to describe the power outcome. Philosophical constructs, as we know, tend to be: more abstract and less concrete, more qualitative than quantitative and, therefore, more difficult to address in managerial or organizational terms.

2 Mary S. Cavanaugh, “A Typology of Social Power” in A. Kakababse and C. Parker, Power, Politics and Organizations: A Behavioural Science View (John Wiley and Sons, 1984)

Cavanaugh’s typology further illustrates the multifaceted nature of the concepts of power and demonstrates why power, as a subject for consideration, often falls outside the boundaries of most management training.


The typologies outlined above tend to be academic, somewhat abstract and difficult to put into operation as a manager. Nevertheless, they provide a certain perspective and help to define the many dimensions of power. What is even more helpful, from my perspective, is a growing tendency for certain writers to deal with power as an organizational or personal resource for decision making and problem solving. Their perspective is more pragmatic, more positive and, often, more value laden.

John Kotter is one of those who advocates power as a driving force for “bringing about change in organizations and interorganizational settings.” The sources of power he prescribes as essential to contemporary managerial effectiveness are based on the assumptions that:

(a) Things no longer get done in today’s complex work setting simply because someone issues an order and someone else follows it;

(b) Most managers experience “power gaps” because their responsibilities exceed their formal authority; and

(c) These factors require a new approach to management, one which empowers the individual beyond the limits of authority vested in the role or job.3

3 Kotter, John, Power and Influence, New York, The Free Press, 1985, pp. 31-50 Many of the ideas on pages 167-169 have been influenced by this book.

Given these assumptions about the current day work setting, Kotter spells out the following bases of power the manager should cultivate to improve his or her overall effectiveness:

(a) The manager should increase his or her information and knowledge about the social reality of the situation being managed. This includes knowing who the relevant parties are to any decision, what they want, how they view the world, what sources of power they possess, and the extent to which they are prepared to use that power.

(b) The manager should cultivate good working relationships based on respect, perceived need, obligation, and friendship.

(c) The manager, who wants to use power to get things done, should establish a credible reputation and track record without which it is difficult to establish the information base one needs to operate effectively; and

(d) Finally, the manager should develop interpersonal, analytical, conceptual and influence skills which can be used to unlock the power sources that exist within all social systems but are often unused.

The Kotter traits, knowledge, and skills are based upon the assumptions that power is both a characteristic of the individual and an interpersonal phenomena (to use Cavanaugh’s typology). Kotter further assumes that most managers are faced with making decisions and solving problems that often transcend their formal authority within the organization. This makes the direct use of reward and coercive power a limited or non-existent alternative.

In contrast to the Kotter perspective on power is the recent view of Rosabeth Kanter who takes an organizational viewpoint and builds on Cavanaugh’s characterization of power as a commodity. Based upon her research into contemporary successful American corporations, Kanter says organization power derives from supplies of three “basic commodities” that can be invested.4

(a) Information (data, technical knowledge, political intelligence, expertise);
(b) Resources (funds, materials, space, staff, time);
(c) Support (endorsement, backing, approval, legitimacy).

4 Kanter, Rosabelle Moss, The Change Masters, New York, Simon and Shuster, l983, p.216

Ironically, Kanter’s list of organizational power commodities is the same “capital” that individuals use to bring about innovation and change. While Kanter sees the bases of power (“power tools,” in her terms) as largely organizational in context, their acquisition and investment as commodities are carried out by individuals.

What Kotter and Kanter have in common is a positive viewpoint about power and its role in bringing about change. They also take for granted that individuals can have power and influence in organizations, irregardless of their specific role or status. They would argue that power not only flows down in an organization (or social system) according to the traditional view, but up and across. For me, it is a confirmation of something I learned the hard way as a manager - that sharing power is not the same as giving it away.


For most individuals in an organization, the challenge is not one of bringing about long term, major changes in the organization or its environment but rather one of managing more immediate superior, subordinate, and collegial relationships to get things done. Before we look at ways to use power and influences - or, more appropriately, to mobilize power in various relationships, it may be useful to consider some basic propositions about the nature of power and influence in organization settings.

(a) While power is often perceived as a top down phenomenon to be exercised by those in authority, in reality, organizational power flows in all directions.

(b) Contrary to popular belief, managing the power relationship downward in the organization may be more difficult than managing power relationships with superiors.

(c) Power relationships are dynamic, not static, and subject to constant re-negotiation.

(d) The absence of power in many organizations may be more pervasive than the use of power.

(e) Power voids make individuals and organizations vulnerable to their environment.

(f) Filling and managing power voids may be more effective than managing power surges.

(g) The powerless in organizations and communities often do not recognize their own strength in any power relationship.

(h) Power is, more often than not, a process of interaction and cooperation which involves constant bargaining between those who perceive they have power and those who perceive that they don’t.

(i) The powerful need assurance that their power is held rightfully within a relationship which sanctions its use and validates its right.

(j) The first power of the powerless is the orderly use of disbelief. (e.g., refusing to accept the definition of oneself that is put forth by those in power).

(k) Individual and organizational power are bounded but the boundaries can be redefined.

(l) Although stated previously, it is worth repeating - sharing power is not the same as giving it away.

(m) The successful power broker is neither naive or cynical about the role that power can play in the everyday management of human events. To quote John Kotter, who teaches a highly acclaimed course on power and influence at the Harvard Business School:

Beyond the yellow brick road of naivete and the muggers lane of cynicism, there is a narrow path, poorly lit, hard to find, and even harder to stay on once found. People who have the skill and the perseverance to take that path serve us in countless ways. We need more of these people. Many more.


Developing and maintaining an effective relationship with superiors in the organization requires:

(a) Information about the superior’s (boss’s) goals, strengths, weaknesses, preferred working style, and the pressures he or she is operating under;

(b) An honest appraisal of one’s own needs, goals, strengths, weaknesses and personal style;

(c) Creating a relationship that fits both parties’ needs and styles and is characterized by mutual expectations; and

(d) Maintaining a relationship that keeps the boss informed behaving dependably and honestly, using the boss’s time and other resources selectively.

The first thing to remember about the relationship with your boss is that he or she ultimately needs you to be successful.

Secondly, the more you know about that person, yourself, and the environment in which you work, the more effective you will be in managing the power relationship. Do you really know what your boss expects of you, on a day-to-day basis, or long run? Are these expectations realistic and fair? Does he or she know your expectations about the job, the relationship, and your long term career goals?

How well do you get along? Are there obvious frictions? If so, have you figured out why they exist and how you might overcome them? Do you waste your boss’s time with unnecessary issues and concerns? Do you keep your boss informed about what you are doing? Is there a feeling of mutual trust between you?

Finally, are you willing to work hard to make your boss successful without expecting much credit for initiating and fostering his or her success?

Since our efforts to foster the success of others requires unselfish dedication, it is important to remember that the goal is to increase our own power sources in the power equation with those up the line in the organization.


As mentioned earlier, managing those power relationships down the organization may be more difficult than managing power relationships with superiors. While supervision over others gives us legitimate access to certain powers, such as reward, punishment, and denial of access to resources, there is another perspective which is often overlooked by many supervisors. This is the amount of power subordinates as a group have over their superiors. Here are just a few of the “power chips” those who work under you have to bargain with (also recognize that these are power chips you have in working power relationships up the line).

Subordinate power comes from having:

(a) Skills and experience that are difficult to replace (e.g., it’s not easy to fire an insubordinate water plant operator if you know you will not be able to find a replacement).

(b) Specialized knowledge and information that is important to the operation and others do not have.

(c) Personal relationships that exist between subordinates and others that you cannot afford to ignite since they could be used against you.

(d) The importance of what subordinates do to fulfill your own agenda and the importance of their performance on your success.

(e) The multitude of ways the subordinate can sabotage your good intentions in complex social systems like organizations.

Given these sources of subordinate power, how does the supervisor maintain his or her own power and influence?

Here are some clues to a successful subordinate power relationship.

(a) Develop credibility and respect with subordinates and work to maintain them. This will require a combination of personal skills and abilities, good working relationships, and access to the resources needed by your subordinates;

(b) Keep open the channels of communication between you and your subordinates -minimize “surprises” on both sides of the relationships.

(c) Be goal directed and decisive. Nothing undermines a supervisor’s power base quicker than not knowing what needs to be done and being indecisive about how to achieve it.

(d) Recognize that coercion invites resistance and retaliations.

(e) Model the kind of behavior you expect from your subordinates - work habits, decisiveness, attention to quality (e.g., do not expect your workers to be on time if you are always late).

(f) Recognize that some decisions must be made by you alone while others are best made in consultation with subordinates.

(g) Be quick to praise and slow to criticize. Worker confidence builds worker response.

(h) Provide opportunities for subordinates to grow and develop.

(i) Continually remind yourself that you, as a supervisor, are only half of the power relationship - the subordinates are the other half.

To recap the issues of power up and down the line, it is important to recognize that most of us are somewhere in the middle, always subject to power sources from above and below -but also in a position to exercise our power relationships and to use our power tools from both perspectives.


In complex organizations and interorganizational systems, the ability to get things done often exists largely outside the direct power and influence of the superior-subordinate relationship. This means, of course, that we find ourselves in positions where power needs to be defined differently if we are going to be successful in achieving our goals largely through the efforts of others outside our direct control or influence.

In managing power relationships across horizontal boundaries, it requires that we:

(a) Identify those relevant horizontal or lateral relationships that are important to what we want to accomplish.

(b) Figure out what is in it for them to get involved in helping us do what we want to do.

(c) Assess where the resistance will come from, why it exists, its potential and what we can do to minimize it.

(d) Open channels of communications and involvement with lateral relationships before we need to call on them to assist in making decisions and solving problems.

(e) Know what we are willing to bargain away to get what we want and need.

(f) Know the territory that goes with inter- and intra-organizational relationships and maintain power by keeping options open.


If we accept power as a positive force in individuals and organizations, as intimately connected with the ability to produce, then we can define it as the capacity to mobilize people and resources to get things done. As we have seen, there are many sources of power potentially available to managers and professionals. Some sources come with the territory we occupy in organizations, some with the experience, education and skills we possess, and others get established through relationships, images, shared values, and other phenomena that characterize complex socio-economic and political systems.

Since power flows up, down, and sideways in organizations, our access to it and our resourcefulness in using it is dependent upon:

(a) Our understanding of power and its many variations;

(b) Our recognition that different strategies and behavior may be appropriate depending upon whether we are managing upward, downward, or sideways relationships; and,

(c) Our ability to exercise power and to fill the voids in its absence.

If power is the capacity to mobilize people and resources to get things done, then it should be recognized as a legitimate and necessary tool of effective management and responsive organizations.



Each of us, as organizational members, have sources of power available to us in varying degrees to help us perform our job responsibilities. The following questionnaire is designed to help you better assess the kinds of power you have available and whether or not you believe the source of power can be increased to improve your effectiveness in the organization.

Not at all

To some extent

To a considerable extent

1. Reward Power
Others in the organization believe I can reward them through such things as promotions, favors, recognition, access to information and other resources.

2. Coercive Power
Others in the organization believe I can punish them through such things as demotions, dismissal, reprimands, and the removal of privileges.

3. Legitimate Power
My position in the organization gives me the right to exert power over others.

4. Referent Power
Others in the organization see me as a person who possesses personal traits that engender such responses as respect, obedience, and allegiance.

5. Expert Power
Others in the organization believe I have special knowledge, skills, or expertise that can help them and the organization carry out their mission and goals.

6. Information Power
Others in the organization believe I have information or access to information that is important to them and the organization.

7. Connection Power
Others in the organization believe I have connections with influential or important people that can help them and the organization.

Review your responses to the above statements. Consider whether or not you would like to increase the extent to which others in the organization view your various sources of power. If so, what are the steps you might take to increase your organizational power and influence. Be as specific as possible.

1. List the categories of power you would like to work on to increase your sense of personal empowerment within the organization.

2. Identify some specific situations in which you would like to increase your personal source of empowerment.

3. Would your increased power and influence be directed primarily toward: (check one or more categories)


your superiors?



your subordinates?



your colleagues?


4. Who in the organization (or others) could help you increase your personal power sources? How might they help you accomplish this?

5. List five specific actions you can take to assure that your personal power quotient increases to meet your expectations, as stated above.

(a) ____________________________________
(b) ____________________________________
(c) ____________________________________
(d) ____________________________________
(e) ____________________________________