Have you ever worked with someone who for some reason has not been promoted, but who has acquired such a degree of knowledge over the years, that you and others tend to unwittingly seek her advice as a thought leader? The colleague in question is said to have expert power.
Or have you worked with someone like Rita (fictitious name), the lady in charge of stationery who only releases required items painfully slowly after umpteen email and personal requests? While she may be a junior colleague, she still wields power as she is in charge of one type of company resource.
So what exactly is power? One thing for certain is that it is several hues, and it is advisable to be aware about the various manifestations of power around us in the workplace.
Is power evil?
The dictionary definition of power is 'The ability or right to control people or things' (Merriam-Webster). This implies that power is exerted by person/s over others, leading in a sense to an imbalance in relationships, aptly summed in George Orwell's infamous Animal Farm, an allegorical portrayal of a political power struggle, in which 'All animals are equal, but some are born more equal than others.'
This 'control' or 'influencing of others' tends to be associated with negative connotations. In fact 'power' is often associated with adages such as, "The higher the climb the greater the fall", or with Lord Acton's infamous quote: "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely".
However, rather than power being inherently 'evil' in itself, it is more likely that abuse of power leads to negative outcomes. In the opening example of this article, expert power was being drawn upon for the good of fellow colleagues, while in the second example power was being misused.
Types of power
Of the five types of power described by French and Raven, 1959, there are two over-arching categories, namely formal power and personal power.
1. Legitimate power (formal power): This is the power we are usually quite familiar with. The head of an Organization, such as a CEO, is divested authority on behalf of the organization. He often strategizes as to how to take the company forward, and also decides on allocation of resources.
2. Coercive (formal power): This power is exerted by through threats of a bad performance review or the possibility of demotion. Too much coercive power can verge on abusive supervision, which can take a toll on the employee’s well-beingleading to even burnout (which includes exhaustion, cynicism and a dip in performance).
3. Reward (formal power): This power is exerted through an employee’s compliance being rewarded through bonuses or a promotion.
4. Referent power (personal power) is derived from bring both trusted and respected.
5. Expert power (personal power) is derived from accumulating years of experience, skills or knowledge.
Interestingly, studies have shown that those with legitimate power who also draw on some form of personal power, usually have a more loyal followership, with employees willing to go the extra mile to work with their boss.
Any type of power can be quite influential. I know of the case of a personal assistant to the CEO of a top MNC who began building up very close relationships with other members of the firm’s senior management group. He built up such a close rapport and high-level of trust with them that it was not long before he overstepped his professional boundaries and started taking decisions beyond his role.
What was the CEO doing all this time, you may ask? Was he not rather negligent? Not necessarily so. It takes quite some time to build up such non-legitimate power. Also, it may be fairly imperceptible at first, and of course it is difficult for a CEO to be aware of all informal conversations at the workplace.
Power takes on many hues and can mean different things to different people. Being aware of the nuances of the types of power operating around you in the workspace, may help you navigate the workplace better.
Written byPayal Kumar
Payal Kumar has worked in senior managerial positions in the higher education sector and in the corporate sector in India, including as Registrar and Professor at a university in north India, and earlier to this as Vice President Editorial and Production, SAGE India Publications Pvt Ltd. Amongst her scholarly publications, she has published a book on Indian women leadership with Palgrave-Macmillan : http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/unveiling-womens-leadership-payal-kumar/?K=9781137547040
She can be contacted at email@example.com