I Have the Power!

I have the power

In 1959 a couple of psychologists (French and Raven, 1959), published a study on ‘The Bases of Social Power’. It looked at the relationship between power/influence and leadership, defining various types of ‘power’.

Since this time, this study and the ‘power types’ defined within it has been referenced – explicitly or  implicitly – in leadership related literature, to help organizations and individuals understand the various types of power that exist and what that means for those that have it and for those that are influenced by it.

For the purpose of this post, I will a provide a brief, high level summary of the power types from the perspective of how I have seen and experienced them in my role as an IT Project Manager.

Legitimate Power

This type of power is associated with position. A CEO has legitimate power by virtue of being at the top of the organizational structure. Similarly, your business unit leader, direct supervisor or your Project Manager has legitimate power as a result of formal authority they have had bestowed upon them. When they say jump, you say – ‘how high’? Right? Well, not necessarily, but that’s the idea when it comes to legitimate power.

In the context of legitimate power in Project Management, how much ‘legitimate power’ / formal authority a Project Manager has over his/her team members will depend on a number of things. Most notably, it will depend on the organizational structure of the company. In ‘Functional’ organizations, where employees are grouped into specialties (e.g. Engineering, Marketing etc.), Project Managers tend to have limited authority, as employees tend to be loyal to their ‘Functional’ group and manager over their project and Project Manager as a result of the organizational structure and related items such as role descriptions and reward programs.

‘Projectized’ Organizations – at the other end of the spectrum (with weak and strong matrix organizations in between) – are structured such that the Project Manager – through the creation and sign off of the Project Charter – has the formal authority / legitimate power for that particular project and employees will report into him/her during the life of the project.

While the organizational structure would likely be influenced by the nature of your business, it’s worth mentioning that the type of business you’re in could be a factor in the prevalence of legitimate power in your company or team. Are you a consulting organization where adherence to delivery processes is vital in your ability to meet tight timelines and quality standards? Are you a product shop where the generation of innovative product and/or feature ideas trumps all? Would you expect the prevalence of legitimate power to be different in these two scenarios?

Lastly, the use – and effectiveness of – legitimate power will also largely depend on such things as the culture and norms of the organization and its teams. Does your organization/team/team members place a high value on Project Management as a discipline? How is this demonstrated and how does it factor into the use and effectiveness of legitimate power?

Reward Power

Reward power is also related to position, but perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent. Basically, it is the power that someone holds as a result of the control they have in issuing ‘rewards’. Again, depending on the type of organization you are working for, and the cultures and norms within it, who has this control may vary. Going back to the Functional Organization example, are employees likely to ‘go the extra mile’ for their project and Project Manager if the Project Manager has no say in things like whether they get a raise/bonus/incentive for doing so?

In a pure Projectized organization, the Project Manager would have the authority for issuing rewards – or there would at least be a process in place whereby Project Managers would have a line of communication to Functional Managers to provide feedback on an employee’s performance for the purpose of issuing rewards commensurate with their performance – which would help provide incentive from a reward power perspective.

All that said, while ‘extrinsic’ rewards such as raises/bonuses/incentives often come to mind as ‘rewards’, there are also many ‘intrinsic’ rewards that Project Managers can have control of, regardless of organizational structure or culture. This could include things like a favourable assignment within the project, or recognition – be it public or private depending on what you know about your individual team member’s personality type and preferences – for a job well done. Sometimes a simple ‘Thank you’ can be a nice reward.

Coercive Power

Coercive power could be described as the opposite of reward power, as the two are very closely related. Basically it is the power (or perceived power) that someone has to threaten or punish someone else as a tactic for performing certain tasks or achieving certain results. This could mean the power to withhold a reward, or to threaten such things as a demotion, pay-cut, lay-off, termination etc. This type of power – as you would expect – has been associated with lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of turn-over.

Use of this type of power is generally agreed to be less effective in the long term and has been more commonly associated with older, outdated ‘command and control’ styles of ‘leadership’.

Expert Power

Expert power is a type of power/influence that is more personal than positional/formal. As the name suggests, it’s about the power you have as an expert in a particular area. This could mean a variety of things, including but not limited to: being the resident guru of a particular technology (e.g. a programming language); being the team member with the most experience in particular field; being a particularly good communicator; or having a knack for identifying and mitigating project risks.

As these examples suggest – and as noted regarding expert power being personal versus positional – anyone can have expert power and there are many areas people can become experts in. Project Managers, as with any role, can build their credibility as experts in their particular areas through actions such as obtaining and maintaining industry certifications (e.g. PMP, CAPM) and continuously improving their skills using all of the lessons they learn on projects along the way.

Reverent Power

Reverent power is closely related with Expert power, as the 2nd type that is personal versus positional. This power type is related to interpersonal skills and relationship building. It is about being able to influence as a result of trust, respect and mutual admiration built over time, versus through any formal authority granted.

As you might imagine, this isn’t something that is easily obtained – and not something that can simply be a blurb in a project charter. Project Managers – and others alike – have to earn this type of power. As you also might expect – with today’s flat/non-hierarchical organizational structures, Reverent Power is arguably the most important type of power as leaders have to be able to achieve results, influencing often with limited formal authority and varying degrees of control over reward systems.


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Filed under Management, People, Project Management

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