Social Complexity and Agility

More Thoughts on Power

In 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 other power bases. I’d like to look at this in a bit more detail here.

Power bases may be divided into two categories

-       positional, i.e. situations where a person is in a position to have power
-       personal, i.e. situations where a person’s power is intrinsic in nature

Reward, coercive, and legitimate power are all positional in nature. To have them, one must be in a position to reward or coerce, or to have legitimate authority. Raven’s later addition, information power, is also positional in nature (Raven, 1965). Personal power bases are, in a way, easier to increase, as the effort required is purely personal, and does not always require outside help. This being said, which of the 2 personal power bases should one focus on increasing?

Benfari et al. (1986) define power relatively simple as “the capacity to influence the behaviour of others”. For them, power is value-neutral. Power is also interpersonal; it requires (at least) two individuals, whose power interactions may be reciprocal or one-sided. For individuals, power exists as two aspects: as a motive, and as a behaviour, and either aspect may be disturbing to the person(s) on the receiving end.

The need for power exists in all of us to a greater or lesser degree. Simply having control over one’s own life is a form of power. Problems start when the urge for power increases, when the desire for power becomes a motive or driving force for someone’s actions, up to the point where it becomes pathological (e.g., as seen in too many politicians). When power is exercised and manifested as influence, it becomes a behaviour in itself. Even though power may be value-neutral, the response to power actions may be positive (P+) or negative (P-) for the recipient, and will thusly change the recipient’s view of the wielder of the power. For example, consider expert power. We have all profited at some time from the advice of an expert, but how often have we experienced someone flaunting his expertise as a know-it-all?

The recipient views the power as negative if he feels a sense of being exploited or manipulated. If the recipient views the power as positive, i.e. when the recipient benefits from the power, he feels support, increased motivation, and an ego boost.

Different types of power have different positive and negative aspects. Reward power is only positive, coercive power only negative. Benfari et al. list 7 types of power – in addition to the 5 classic types described by French and Raven, they include Raven’s information power, and add what they call “affiliation power”. This type of power is similar to the concept of centrality in social network analysis (Bonacich, 1987), and describes the power a person has by virtue of their access to other persons of power, by being affiliated with them. (n.b. Benfari et al. also mention the power of groups. Since this is not an individual power base, we’ll look at it in a later post, but not here).

Power base Explanation Perceived as
Reward Positive strokes, remuneration, awards, compliments, other symbolic gestures of praise P+
Coercion Physical or psychological injury, verbal and non-verbal put-downs, slights, symbolic gestures of disdain, physical attack,demotion, unwanted transfer, withholding of needed resources P-
Legitimate Management right to control, obligation of others to obey, playing ‘the boss’ and abusing authority P-
Exercise of leadership based on authority in times of crisis or need P+
Referent Identification based on personal characteristics, sometimes on perception of charisma; or reciprocal identification based on friendship, association, sharing personal
information, providing something of value to the other, and on common interests, values, viewpoints and preferences; creation of reciprocal ‘IOUs’
P+
Expert Possession of specialized knowledge valued by others, used to help others, given freely when solicited P+
Unsolicited expertise, seen as unwarranted intrusion; continual use can create barriers; expertise offered in a condescending manner can be seen as coercive; withholding expertise in times of need P-
Information Access to information that is not public knowledge, because of position or connections; can exist at all levels in the organization, not just at the top; those at the top may know less about what is going on; secretaries and personal assistants to senior executives often have information power, and can often control information flows to and from superiors P-
Affiliation ‘Borrowed’ from an authority source with whom one is associated – executive secretaries and staff assistants act as surrogates for their superiors; acting on the wishes of the superior P+
Acting on their own self-interest; using negative affiliation power by applying accounting and personnel policies rigidly P-

Source: Based on Benfari et al. (2001)

As can be easily seen from the table above, the only types of power that are considered purely positive are reward and referent power, and of these, only referent power is personal-based. This provides a good argument for a focus on increasing referent power if you want to be able to help your clients’ teams, and co-workers. In my last blog post, I mentioned a number of core competencies to concentrate on for increasing referent power. Here are some other tips from Benfari et al.

  • Get to know the motives, preferences, values and interests of colleagues.
  • Build relationships using shared motives, goals and interests.
  • Build large networks of people and information – make connections between individuals and between individuals and different stakeholders.
  • Respect differences in interests, and points of view-don’t attack – invite reciprocity.
  • Give positive strokes, use reward power, confirm others competence.
  • Share information and expertise with others.
  • Minimise concerns with status.
  • Develop communication skills – assertiveness, meta-communication, question asking, clarity and rapport.
  • Manage your impression – dress, body language, facial expression, voice one, etc.
  • Develop understanding of how people tick – e.g. body language, use of language, ‘trigger points’.
  • Develop an understanding of systemic deep dynamics and implicit information channels – know what you are sitting in in any given moment.
  • Demonstrate congruence between espoused values and behaviours.
  • Develop ability to take risks and lead on issues – even if it is lobbying for an idea within a meeting.

Sounds like good advice for anyone wanting to become a better ScrumMaster, doesn’t it?

References

Benfari, R.C. et al. (1986) The Effective Use of Power. Business Horizons, 29, 12.
Bonacich, P. (1987) Power and Centrality: A Family of Measures. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 92, No. 5, 1170-1182.
Raven, B.H. (1965) Social influence and power. In Current studies in social psychology, (Ed, Steiner, I.D.F., M.) New York: Hoh, Rinehart. Winston, pp. 371-381.

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