Work­place Power & In­flu­ence - Me or We?

Trillions - - In This Issue - By Dr. Chance Ea­ton

A unique role for me as a learn­ing and or­ga­ni­za­tional de­vel­op­ment con­sul­tant is to ob­serve work en­vi­ron­ments’ cul­ture and cli­mate. Since lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment is a com­mon job re­spon­si­bil­ity, I can’t help but watch lead­ers’ lev­els of in­flu­ence on oth­ers. I pay very close at­ten­tion to em­ploy­ees in su­per­vi­sory, man­age­ment and lead­er­ship roles, and I try to un­der­stand how they use their po­si­tions to in­flu­ence group per­for­mance and be­hav­ior.

I of­ten use a thought ex­per­i­ment to help me un­der­stand how deep a leader’s in­flu­ence is. I imag­ine sam­ple sit­u­a­tions out­side of work, such as a Satur­day farm­ers’ mar­ket, and imag­ine how dif­fer­ent em­ploy­ees would re­act to a leader’s in­flu­ence. If I saw you at a Satur­day farm­ers’ mar­ket, in week­end clothes, and we crossed paths, would I step into a street ven­dor’s booth in at­tempt to avoid you or, at bare min­i­mum, ac­knowl­edge you and con­tinue walk­ing by? This is the re­sult of po­si­tional power, where in­flu­ence ceases to ex­ist once we exit the bound­aries of the work­place. Al­ter­na­tively, if I saw you at the Satur­day farm­ers’ mar­ket, would I go out of my way to say hello, in­tro­duce you to my chil­dren and start a heart­felt di­a­logue? This is the re­sult of per­sonal power, where in­flu­ence con­tin­ues to ex­ist even out­side the tra­di­tional bound­aries of work. This test gets to the heart of the type of power you wield.

In the late 1950s, so­cial psy­chol­o­gists John French and Ber­tram Raven wrote “The Bases of So­cial Power” and iden­ti­fied five sep­a­rate modes of power. To­day it con­tin­ues to be one of the most widely used ap­proaches to un­der­stand­ing power in the work­place. The five modes in­clude co­er­cive, re­ward, le­git­i­mate, ex­pert and ref­er­ent power.

Po­si­tional Power

In­di­vid­u­als who use co­er­cive power use threats of pun­ish­ment to ac­com­plish com­pli­ance and obe­di­ence. This is a po­si­tional type of power be­cause when the bound­aries of work dis­ap­pear, so does the per­son’s in­flu­ence. As an ex­am­ple, I once worked with a leader whose ul­ti­mate strat­egy was to cre­ate an at­mos­phere of fear. You could see that the en­tire team was very pre­pared for ev­ery meet­ing, was ner­vous and would agree with any­thing the leader said. Even when there was an item up for dis­cus­sion, they would know what the leader wanted to hear and would fall in line with the de­sired de­ci­sion. They did this be­cause they didn’t want to re­ceive pun­ish­ment for be­ing out of line. This is the mode where work­place bul­lies live. On the pos­i­tive side, the de­part­ment ran very smoothly and with lit­tle dis­agree­ment, but sur­vey data showed that its mem­bers were dis­en­gaged and felt dis­re­spected.

A re­lated source de­scribed by French and Raven (1960) is re­ward power. Team mem­bers com­ply with

the leader be­cause of their de­sire to re­ceive re­wards in ex­change for com­pli­ance and obe­di­ence. This is an­other form of po­si­tional power be­cause when the bound­aries of work are left (specif­i­cally the abil­ity to ac­cess re­wards or fund­ing), the power dis­ap­pears too. Just as my kids will try to but­ter me up when they want money for some­thing im­por­tant to them, em­ploy­ees will com­ply with their leader in or­der to re­ceive fund­ing for projects and work ac­tiv­i­ties. I once had a boss to whom I had pitched for over a year the pur­chase of a soft­ware ser­vice. Once he was con­vinced the re­turn on in­vest­ment would be ad­e­quate, he didn’t say “Good job for re­search­ing an im­por­tant busi­ness so­lu­tion.” In­stead, he told me “Merry Christ­mas.” He said this be­cause he wanted to re­mind me that he was the one gift­ing me with some­thing of value and it was only pos­si­ble due to his spend­ing author­ity. In essence he was re­mind­ing me that he held in­flu­ence due to his re­ward­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

A third type of in­flu­ence is le­git­i­mate power, ac­cord­ing to French and Raven. This refers to the for­mal right found in tra­di­tional hi­er­ar­chies, where team mem­bers com­ply and ex­er­cise obe­di­ence due to the sheer author­ity a leader holds. I once had a su­per­vi­sor who would en­ter the work space and say “How are my chil­dren to­day?” He felt that he was the fa­ther of the team and that his em­ploy­ees, some who were of a sim­i­lar age, were his chil­dren and en­ti­tled fol­low­ers. I rec­og­nize le­git­i­mate power be­ing ex­er­cised when I see em­ploy­ees go along with re­quests even though there is no per­sonal ac­cep­tance or deep com­mit­ment to car­ry­ing out the or­der. The team fol­lows be­cause they have to – it is their job. I once had to carry out an or­der I deeply dis­agreed with. I had the sup­port from the rest of the team and wanted to con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion as a team. How­ever, it be­came ap­par­ent that this was not up for dis­cus­sion, and I re­mem­ber say­ing, in a rather con­de­scend­ing tone, to my boss, “Well, you are the boss, so I guess I just have to do it.” My boss said, “Yes, that is right.” He was re­mind­ing me that the tra­di­tional hi­er­ar­chy rules all and that ul­ti­mately we have to fall in line with the chain of com­mand. Some­times this is ap­pro­pri­ate, but if you live in this mode of power, odds are that you will only get re­sis­tance in the long run.

Though there may be times when po­si­tional types of power (co­er­cive, re­ward and le­git­i­mate power) are ef­fec­tive, a com­mon re­ac­tion, ac­cord­ing to lead­er­ship au­thor Af­saneh Na­ha­vandi (1997), is re­sis­tance. If a leader lives in one of these three do­mains, em­ploy­ees may grow to pas­sively, or even ac­tively, re­sist the leader’s in­flu­ence. Ma­jor turnover in spe­cific work groups

is a com­mon oc­cur­rence I see when lead­ers live in po­si­tional power. The em­ploy­ees’ re­sis­tance and dis­tress is strong enough that they begin to leave for other em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. Gallup finds sim­i­lar re­sults in its em­ployee-en­gage­ment re­search. Gallup con­sul­tant Marco Nink in­di­cates that the im­me­di­ate su­per­vi­sor al­most al­ways plays a role in why highly mo­ti­vated peo­ple be­come dis­en­gaged from their work: “Quit­ting is al­most al­ways a state­ment against the im­me­di­ate su­per­vi­sor.” (Gallup Busi­ness Jour­nal, 2009, p. 1) In other words, the root of dis­en­gage­ment is sim­ply poor man­age­ment. (Gopal, 2003)

In po­si­tional power, in­flu­ence is de­rived from the po­si­tion that the in­di­vid­ual holds. Once the ti­tle is taken away or we leave the for­mal bound­aries of the work­place, their power dis­ap­pears with it. I re­cently watched a for­mal leader with some of the com­pany’s high­est lev­els of author­ity moved into a spe­cial­ist role. Overnight, their in­flu­ence dis­ap­peared with their ti­tle change. This sig­naled to me that their in­flu­ence was ul­ti­mately po­si­tional.

Per­sonal Power

The fourth type of power, ac­cord­ing to French and Raven (1960), is ex­pert power. In­flu­ence in this form of power is de­rived from the be­lief in the per­son’s knowl­edge and sub­ject-mat­ter ex­per­tise. Po­si­tion isn’t a fac­tor in this case; in­stead, it is the per­son. It is com­mon for em­ploy­ees to by­pass their for­mal hi­er­ar­chy and seek out the per­son with ex­pert power due to the valu­able in­for­ma­tion they pos­sess. I once had a work col­league who had an enor­mous amount of em­ployee-re­la­tions sub­ject-mat­ter ex­per­tise. Con­se­quently, when they spoke on em­ployee mat­ters, I would lis­ten with great in­ten­sity. Be­cause of their sheer com­pe­tence on the sub­ject, I trusted them and would look to them for guid­ance. In­stead of com­pli­ance, a per­son dis­play­ing ex­pert power cre­ates an en­vi­ron­ment of com­mit­ment, where their in­flu­ence is wel­comed.

Fi­nally, ref­er­ent power refers to a leader’s at­trac­tive­ness to oth­ers in gen­eral. It in­cludes their lik­a­bil­ity, charisma and per­ceived sim­i­lar­ity and cre­ates an urge to be part of their in-group. As a re­sult, this type of in­flu­ence can gen­er­ate com­mit­ment, where the lead­er­ship in­flu­ence is wel­comed and ac­cepted. This is well demon­strated when you see, at the Satur­day farm­ers’ mar­ket, a co-worker who com­monly uses ref­er­ent power. In­stead of avoid­ing them, you will go out of your way to say hello to them and start a mean­ing­ful di­a­logue. They are a role model, and due to the re­spect they have earned in the work­place, their in-

flu­ence leaves with them when they leave the for­mal bound­aries of the work­place. This per­sonal power, ver­sus po­si­tional power, leads to a deep com­mit­ment to or­ga­ni­za­tional mis­sion and vi­sion.

The Dan­ger of Po­si­tional Power

As a gen­eral rule, when you can lean on per­sonal power ver­sus po­si­tional power, per­sonal com­mit­ment will in­crease and team mem­bers will ac­cept your ideas and de­ci­sions. How­ever, this re­quires study and prac­tice in the ba­sics of lead­er­ship and in­flu­enc­ing a shared move­ment. In my line of work, I com­monly no­tice that lead­ers mis­in­ter­pret their team mem­bers as be­ing com­mit­ted when in re­al­ity they are sim­ply be­ing com­pli­ant. I know this be­cause I will of­ten hear a leader com­ment on their team’s com­mit­ment to them, but in one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions with the em­ploy­ees, I hear the em­ploy­ees say some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent. It also shows up in the data. I’ve seen lead­ers com­ment on their teams feel­ing re­spected, but 360-de­gree re­ports show a ma­jor­ity not feel­ing re­spected or heard.

Be­ing in a po­si­tion of author­ity is a dan­ger­ous thing if you do not un­der­stand how to truly in­flu­ence peo­ple at a deep and mean­ing­ful level and lean on the po­si­tion it­self to cre­ate the de­sired in­flu­ence. Re­search shows us that when peo­ple have an in­flated sense of power over oth­ers, they will as­sume they have a priv­i­leged per­spec­tive to in­for­ma­tion and draw in­ac­cu­rate as­sump­tions; in essence they will an­chor too heav­ily on their own van­tage point, dis­tort­ing clear mes­sages. (Galin­sky, Magee, Inesi and Gru­en­feld, 2006)


Be­ing in a po­si­tion of power can have un­in­tended con­se­quences. If unchecked, an in­flated sense of power can hurt a leader, the em­ploy­ees and the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion. The real se­cret to be­ing in­flu­en­tial is not to have power to in­flu­ence oth­ers but to em­power oth­ers. In fact this is the crux of lead­er­ship – hir­ing, de­vel­op­ing and mo­ti­vat­ing those around you to be lead­ers. Em­pow­er­ment is all about shar­ing your power and giv­ing it to your team mem­bers to per­form their job func­tions. It is all about cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere of re­spon­si­bil­ity, self-ef­fi­cacy, hon­esty, in­tegrity, trust and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Em­pow­er­ment is all about cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere of lis­ten­ing to un­der­stand be­fore be­ing un­der­stood, sup­port, risk tol­er­ance, re­ward and cel­e­bra­tion of suc­cess, shar­ing and driv­ing to­wards a vi­sion and con­tin­u­ous hu­man-to-hu­man di­a­logue. This all starts with an ego check. Who is this re­ally about? Me or we? When I work with a leader who can’t seem to let go of their po­si­tional power, I know I am deal­ing with an ego that needs to sat­isfy their self-iden­tity as some­one who is in con­trol and, in some cases, has low self-es­teem. Al­ter­na­tively, when I work with a leader whose goal is to turn their team mem­bers into lead­ers them­selves, I know I am work­ing with some­one who truly wants to in­flu­ence a shared move­ment. So you have to ask your­self “When it comes to power, is it about me … or we?”


French, J. P. R. Jr., and Raven, B. (1960). “The Bases of So­cial Power.” D. Cartwright and A. Zan­der (eds.), Group Dy­nam­ics (pp. 607-623). New York: Harper and Row.

Galin­sky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., and Gru­en­feld, D. H. (2006). “Power and Per­spec­tives Not Taken.” Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ences, 17 (pp. 1068-74).

Gopal, A. “Dis­en­gaged Em­ploy­ees Cost Sin­ga­pore $4.9 Bil­lion.” Gallup Busi­ness Jour­nal (2003). Re­trieved March 15, 2013, from http://busi­nessjour­­tent/1207/dis­en­gaged-em­ploy­ees-cost Sin­ga­pore-49-bil­lion.aspx.

“It’s Al­ways About the Boss.” Gallup Busi­ness Jour­nal (2009). Re­trieved Fe­bru­ary 27, 2013, from http:// busi­nessjour­­tent/124481/al­ways-boss. aspx?v.

Na­ha­vandi, A. (1997). The Art and Sci­ence of Lead­er­ship. Up­per Sad­dle River: Pren­tice Hall.

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Dr. Chance Ea­ton has over a decade’s worth of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in the field of Learn­ing & Or­ga­ni­za­tional De­vel­op­ment. Due to his unique ed­u­ca­tional and work ex­pe­ri­ences in fi­nance, psy­chol­ogy, lead­er­ship & man­age­ment, ed­u­ca­tion, noetic sci­ences, and...

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