Social Complexity and Agility

Authority and Power

One of the classic sayings in Scrum is that the ScrumMaster has no authority. He cannot tell his team members what to do, or what not to do. In a way, this makes sense. If the ScrumMaster had the authority to tell people what to do, he would take away their opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, to become committed and not just involved. Looking at it differently, by telling team members what to do, he would give them the chance to refuse responsibility for their actions. “It’s not my problem, he told me to do it!” Even though the ScrumMaster has no authority, this does not mean that he has no power.

Power cannot be taken, it can only be given. A person only has power over you if you give them this power over you. Being aware of the ways you give people power over you will help you avoid doing it unintentionally or inadvertently. So, what types of power may a person possess, and which types of power should one best focus on increasing?

In 1959, John French and Bertram Raven wrote a seminal paper on the different types of power (1959). According to French and Raven, power is defined as the potential ability of one person to influence another person. Thus, power is potential influence, while influence is kinetic power.

In their paper, French and Raven define five different types of power, all of which may vary in their domain, strength and range.

Reward power. You gives a person reward power over you when you believe that they can do something good for you or they can take away something bad. Obviously, if the person actually does do something good for you, his or her reward power over you increases.

Coercive power. You give a person coercive power over you if you believe that the person can do something bad to you, for example, cause you harm or pain. If the person actually does something bad to you, their power over you increases. The mere awareness or threat of coercive power is often enough to enforce compliance. Imagine if you were driving a car and you saw a police officer standing on the corner. Even if he was not looking directly at you, you would tend to drive slower.

Legitimate power. You give a person legitimate power over you if you believe that they have the right to have this power. This right often comes as the result of an implicit or explicit social contract. An example for an implicit social contract would be a contract that parents have with their children (although as every parent knows, this contract must be renegotiated regularly). An explicit social contract would be your work contract, which gives your boss power over you. As one can see, legitimate power contains both reward and coercive components. If you do something good at your job, you may get a bonus. If you do something bad at your job, you may get fired.

Expert power. You give a person expert power over you if you believe they have superior knowledge relevant to the situation and to the task at hand. This power rarely extends outside of the domain of expertise, but the implied transference of expert power into other domains is a technique often used in advertising.

Referent power. Referent power is the most difficult type of power to describe. It is best understood as a type of power that comes from personal integrity and/or from charisma. This is the type of power that Gandhi or Nelson Mandala or Martin Luther King had. Over time, though, the power these men had became legitimate power, as they were voted into political office.

In his later works, Raven added a sixth type of power, which he termed informational power. Having access to information, and the ability to use this information, can give a person power. As an example, think of Edward Snowden.

Looking at the different types of power, one sees that they can be grouped into two groups – positional power, which is power one receives as the result of being in a position to have the power, and personal power, which is not dependent upon position, but solely dependent upon the person. If you want to increase your power base, in order to better help people, then which type(s) of power should you focus on increasing?

Being in a position to give a reward or to coerce, or being in a position of having the right to legitimate power, puts one in the position to command others. This is not the type of power a ScrumMaster should use. This is the reason why no one who is in a management position can be a ScrumMaster for his team. It is better to focus on increasing your personal power than on increasing your positional power.

How can you start increasing your personal power? You can increase your expert power by concentrating on your continued professional development. Reading, keeping up to date on new developments in your field, attending trainings, etc., are all ways of increasing your expert power.

Increasing your referent power can be done by focusing on your continued personal development. This is a noble task whether or not you work as a ScrumMaster, since furthering your personal competencies will increase your feeling of well-being. Awartani et al. (2008) define well-being as the realisation of one’s physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual potential.

Mental or rational well-being as that part of life which is primarily related to thinking and cognition, and to the processes of the rational mind, e.g.: planning, understanding, focusing, envisioning, abstraction, reflection, evaluation.

Emotional refers to the intrapersonal or inward-looking awareness and processing of feelings, of understanding your feelings, their triggers, and your reaction patterns, of having your emotions under control, and not being “hijacked” by them.

Social refers to the interpersonal or outward-looking awareness and processing of feelings, of understanding how they influence our interactions with others.

Physical refers to those aspects of life related to the physical senses and to sensory experience, to our bodies, and to the material and natural environments. The actions and functions of doing, building, taking apart, detailing, producing, acting, and making practical are included.

Spiritual is not necessarily a religious or esoteric concept, but refers to life, to its meaning and purpose, to beliefs and what one believes in. You are believable for others when they feel that you believe deeply and strongly in something.

Although all these aspects each play a role, well-being represents a pervasive feeling about oneself, one’s life, and one’s environment. You can start right now and take a first step towards your own well-being. Take a few moments to think about these 5 areas, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and which areas you want to focus on strengthening.


Awartani, M. et al. (2008) Developing Instruments to Capture Young People’s Perceptions of how School as a Learning Environment Affects their Well-Being. European Journal of Education, 43, 51-70.
French, J.R.P.Jr. & Raven, B. (1959) The Bases of Social Power. In Studies in Social Power, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, pp. 150-167.

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  1. [...] my last blog post on the different types of power (here), I noted that it is more advantageous to focus on increasing expert and referent power than the [...]

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