Power and Politics

Power is one of the most controversial topics in the study of organizations and of people therein. So much so that it has been termed the “last dirty word.” People are often not comfortable discussing power. People who have power deny it; people who seek power try to conceal their objectives from others; and those who secure power, are secretive about how they secured it. Extensive research has been done in OB on how people gain and use power in organizations. It has been observed that most formal organizations are highly political and power plays an important role in the way they work.

Power and politics are an important part of the dynamics of OB. Power relationships are a natural part of any group or organization. It is important for students of OB to know how power is acquired and exercised. Though there is a popular saying that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” power is not always a negative concept. Power is a reality of organizational life and it is difficult to do away with it. Moreover, an understanding of how power works in organizations can help one become a more effective m Power has been defined in different ways by a number of scholars. Stephen P. Robbins defined power as “the ability to influence and control anything that is of value to others.”

According to Max Weber, a pioneering sociologist, power is “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance.” The most important element in the study of power is dependency. The greater the level of A’s dependence on B, the greater is B’s power over A in that relationship. Further, dependence is the function of the alternatives perceived by A and the importance given by A to these alternatives that B controls. A person can have power over another only if he has control over something that the other person desires. For example, if you need to acquire certain skills in which your coach is the only expert available, then the coach has power over you. Since the alternatives are limited and it is important for you to acquire those skills, you are dependent on the coach. But once you have acquired those skills, your dependency on the coach decreases and thus his power over you also decreases.

Bases of Power: Power is of different types, depending on where it is sourced from and how it is used. Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven have identified five sources of power: coercive, reward, legitimate, expert and referent

French and Raven identified five primary ways in which power can be exerted in social situations.

Referent Power. In some  cases,  person B looks  up  to  or  admires  person A, and,  as  a  result, B follows A largely because of A’s personal qualities, characteristics, or reputation. In this case, A can use referent power to influence B. Referent power has also been called charismatic power, because allegiance is based on interpersonal attraction of one individual for another. Examples of referent power can be seen in advertising, where companies use celebrities to recommend their products; it is hoped that the star appeal of the person will rub off on the products. In work environments, junior managers often emulate senior managers and assume unnecessarily subservient roles more because of personal admiration than because of respect for authority.

Expert Power. Expert power is demonstrated when person A gains power because A has knowledge or expertise relevant to B. For instance, professors presumably have power in the classroom because of their mastery of a particular subject matter. Other examples of expert power can be seen in staff specialists in organizations (e.g., accountants, labor relations managers, management consultants, and corporate attorneys). In each case, the individual has credibility in a particular—and narrow—area as a result of experience and expertise, and this gives the individual power in that domain.

Legitimate Power. Legitimate power exists when person B submits to person A because B feels that A has a right to exert power in a certain domain. Legitimate power is really another name for authority, as explained earlier. A supervisor has a right, for instance, to assign work. Legitimate power differs from reward and coercive power in that it depends on the official position a person holds, and not on his or her relationship with others.

Legitimate power derives from three sources. First, prevailing cultural values can assign power to some group. In Japan and Korea, for instance, older employees derive power simply because of their age. Second, legitimate power can be attained as a result of the accepted social structure. For example, many Western European countries, as well as Japan, have royal families that serve as a cornerstone to their societies. Third, legitimate power may be designated, as in the case of a board of directors choosing a new company president or a person being promoted into a managerial position. Whatever the reason, people exercise legitimate power because subordinates assume they have a right to exercise it. A principal reason given for the downfall of the shah of Iran is that the people came to first question and then denounce his right to legitimate power.

Reward      Power. Reward      power exists      when      person A has       power       over  person B because A controls rewards that B wants. These rewards can cover a wide array of possibilities, including pay raises, promotions, desirable job assignments, more responsibility, new equipment, and so forth. Research has indicated that reward power often leads to increased job performance as employees see a strong performance-reward contingency.

However, in many organizations, supervisors and managers really do not control very many rewards. For example, salary and promotion among most blue-collar workers is based on a labor contract, not a performance appraisal.

Coercive Power. Coercive power is based primarily on fear. Here, person A has power over person B because A can administer some form of punishment to B. Thus, this kind of power is also referred to as punishment power. As Kipnis points out, coercive power does not have to rest on the threat of violence. “Individuals exercise coercive power through a reliance upon physical strength, verbal facility, or the ability to grant or withhold emotional support from others. These bases provide the individual with the means to physically harm, bully, humiliate, or deny love to others.”

Examples of coercive power in organizations include the ability (actual or implied) to fire or demote people, transfer them to undesirable jobs or locations, or strip them of valued perquisites. Indeed, it has been suggested that a good deal of organizational behavior (such as prompt attendance, looking busy, avoiding whistle-blowing) can be attributed to coercive, not reward, power. As Kipnis explains, “Of all the bases of power available to man, the power to hurt others is possibly the most often used, most often condemned and most difficult to control.”


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Organizational Behavior by Icfai Business School is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.