What’s Your Power in Your Organization? Don’t Give it Up!

In This Article

(Click the links below to move easily to sections of this article)
Case Study: A True Story on Power and Politics in Organizations
What is Organizational Power
The Six Sources of Organizational Power
Using Your Power to Survive Organizational Politics
Case Study: The Rest of the Story
Video: 6 Sources of Organizational Power

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Case Study: A True Story on Power and Politics in Organizations

I’m tired of giving 150% to this organization and only getting grief back from my boss! I’m going to pull back and just do the minimum until I can get out of here!

I remember the frustration I felt from “Karen” as she said these words to me.

Karen’s frustrations were valid!

She was a talented middle manager working in a dynamic organization. She had a proven track record for excellent work and she was well regarded by most of her peers and by senior leaders in the organization.

Her problem was that she was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Through a series of promotions, Karen started working for an insecure boss who was threatened by her abilities. He began undermining her whenever he could.

To make matters worse, she supervised an ambitious manager who wanted her job and he too undermined her whenever he could.  Naturally, her boss and her manager banded together against their mutual enemy, Karen, and the office politics began.

As I listened to Karen, I asked her about her long term career plans and whether she wanted to stay with her organization. She replied that she did want to stay. She explained that she had worked hard there and she still had a lot of goodwill with other leaders in the organization.

I then asked Karen what she felt distinguished her as one of the organization’s star performers.  Without hesitation, Karen replied that it was the quality of the work that she and her team produced for the organization.

I then asked her the following: What do you think will happen to you in your organization if you give up the main source of your organizational power and begin doing average work?

If you do not know the source of your power in your organization, you may someday find yourself without any. Share on X

Karen was initially stunned by my question, but she got it.

The last thing she wanted to do while she worked her way through this thorny problem was to give up her power in the organization to her boss and her team member.

Karen realized that it was her ability to produce quality work that ultimately made her invaluable to her organization. This gave her an expert status in the organization: senior leadership gave difficult organizational problems to her to solve and her boss’s peers frequently wanted Karen to participate on their cross functional projects.

I helped Karen to realize that if she started to slack off in this area, she was effectively surrendering to her boss and manager.

If you do not know how to properly leverage the source of your power in your organization, you may someday find yourself without any. Share on X

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What is Organizational Power

It would be nice if Karen’s situation was a rare occurrence. Unfortunately, it is the real world!

Human failings and the organizational politics they stir up come with being a manager. They are a factor that every manager must be prepared to confront appropriately.

In fact, despite your best efforts to do your work and collaborate effectively with everyone, you may someday find that because of office politics you are in a difficult place similar to what Karen experienced.

It happens!

In dealing with the office politics, your best chance of survival is to understand the source of your organizational power so you can use it appropriately. This is critical if you want to remain relevant in your organization, and it may also save your career in your industry. When you face the downside of organizational politics, the last thing you want to do is destroy your own value by giving your power away.

So, what is organizational power and where does it come from?

The definition of organizational power is the following:

Organizational power is the ability that you have to influence the behavior of another stakeholder in your organization. Your power is measured by the extent that you can use your influence to get that stakeholder to do something that he or she would otherwise prefer not to do.1

From an organizational behavior perspective, this definition of organizational power implies that the other stakeholder is dependent on you. This means that the greater their dependency is on you the more power you will have to influence their actions.

Dependency here is not a good or bad function. It’s just an assessment of the nature of the relationship between you and the other stakeholder.

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The Six Sources of Organizational Power

the number six displayed as a color landscape on a white backgroundIn their classic work, the Bases of Social Power, the social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five major sources of power. (Bertram would later add a sixth.)

These six sources of power are as follows:

1. Reward Power (is the ability to reward): It involves giving organizational assets of value to others. These are intrinsic and extrinsic resources such as perks, compensation, desirable work assignments, promotions, etc.

2. Coercive Power (is the ability to punish): It involves inflicting painful outcomes on others for their refusal to conform. This can include withholding intrinsic and extrinsic assets of value and inflicting negative actions on someone such as a suspension or firing.

3. Legitimate Power (comes with the position): It involves the delegated rights that comes with being appointed to a management position in an organization. This includes the rights to direct the work of others and to distribute rewards and sanctions as the organization allows.

4. Expert Power (comes from what you know): It involves the special skills and knowledge you have of your organization, function, industry, processes, etc.

5. Referent Power (comes from the positive impressions others have of you): it involves others’ admiration of certain qualities that you possess and their desire to be associated with you.

6. Informational Power (comes from the power of your logic and reasoning): it involves providing information that is so powerful that people change based on what you say, not who you are.

There are six sources of organizational power. Which of them do you have and are you using them as you should? Share on X

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Using Your Power to Survive Organizational Politics

You can survive a political attack in your organization if you know the sources of your power and you use them effectively.

Here’s three things that you can do:

  • First, do your job and do it well.  If you just withdraw in frustration and start to produce inferior work, you will give your organizational opponents the data they need to come after you.
  • Second, maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. This means that you should feel free to totally ignore the advice that some consultants give about focusing on your strengths only. If you do this, you are providing the ammunition to those who want to take shots at you. They’ll over dramatize your weaknesses every chance they get and in the process harm your credibility. Instead of ignoring your weaknesses, you want to minimize them.
  • Third, identify your sources of organizational power and use them appropriately to maintain your organizational standing. Use coercive, reward, and legitimate power wisely. As you use these powers always make sure that your actions account for your organizational culture with its standards of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Strengthen your organizational credibility by properly leveraging expert, referent, and informational power as appropriate.

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Case Study: The Rest of the Story

By the way, if you’re wondering about Karen, she did fine.

Despite her boss’s and her manager’s best efforts to destroy her credibility, she outwitted them both by producing excellent efforts on several high visibility projects. She leveraged this success to do some strategic networking and informally let it be known that she was open to other opportunities in the organization. She was quickly hired by another leader who appreciated her value and was not threatened by Karen’s many talents.

Karen recognized her power in her organization and she leveraged it.  Specifically, she used her expert power to further enhance her referent power in the organization so she could escape a difficult situation.

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the words "the end" are written on a chalk boardIn conclusion, there is a place where human interactions always revolve around what makes the most sense for the larger greater good. In this organization, colleagues always work through their human failings of insecurity and envy without any concern for their own influence and recognition needs.

Are you excited and wondering where you can apply for ANY job that they offer?

Here’s the bad news: The organization exists and you know it as Utopia. Here’s more bad news: It’s hard to get to Utopia as it is located somewhere between Neverland and the Emerald City.

I haven’t been to Utopia myself, and I gave up looking for it some time ago. From what I’ve seen, groups with high ideals still suffer from these same human imperfections.

The truth is that there is no organization or group where politics and human failings do not weave some negative influence. So, if you’re trying to escape office politics completely (and just do your job), you’re looking for a place that doesn’t exist — Utopia. For this reason, it’s best for you to know your power as a manager and to use it strategically and ethically as necessary.

So, my advice to you today is the following: What’s your power in your organization?  Don’t give it up!

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Video: 6 Sources of Organizational Power

There is an organization where human interactions are always positive. There, no one is insecure or envious. There, everyone is more concerned about others than themselves. Where can you apply? Contact Utopia! Share on X

Source Notes:
1 Adapted from: Robbins, S. P. (1996). Organizational behavior: Concepts, controversies, applications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Measuring the Bases of Social Power. (n.d.). Retrieved June 26, 2016, from http://acrwebsite.org/volumes/9226/volumes/v06/NA-06

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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