The 7 Types Of Power That Shape The Workplace

Power comes in many different forms, and leaders need to learn how to handle each type.

“Power tends to get to people’s heads,” psychologist Nicole Lipkin tells Business Insider. “We’re not really trained to handle power well.”

Lipkin discusses the different types of power in her new book, “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.” Her analysis uses the five types of power introduced by psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959, along with two types that were introduced later.

Legitimate Power is where a person in a higher position has control over people in a lower position in an organization.

“If you have this power, it’s essential that you understand that this power was given to you (and can be taken away), so don’t abuse it.” Lipkin says. “If Diane rises to the position of CEO and her employees believe she deserves this position, they will respond favorably when she exercises her legitimate power. On the other hand, if Diane rises to the position of CEO, but people don’t believe that she deserves this power, it will be a bad move for the company as a whole.”

Coercive Power is where a person leads threats and force. It is unlikely to win respect and loyalty from employees for long.

“There is not a time of day when you should use it,” Lipkin tells us. “Ultimately, you can’t build credibility with coercive influence — you can think of it like bullying in the workplace.”

Expert Power is the perception that one possesses superior skills or knowledge.

“If Diane holds an MBA and a PhD in statistical analysis, her colleagues and reports are more inclined to accede to her expertise,” Lipkin says.

In order to keep their status and influence, however, experts need to continue learning and improving.

Informational Power is where a person possesses needed or wanted information. This is a short-term power that doesn’t necessarily influence or build credibility.

For example, a project manager may have all the information for a specific project, and that will give her “informational power.” But it’s hard for a person to keep this power for long, and eventually this information will be released. This should not be a long-term strategy.

Reward Power is where a person motivates others by offering raises, promotions, and awards.

“When you start talking financial livelihood, power takes on a whole new meaning,” Lipkin says. For example, “both Diane and Bob hold a certain amount of reward power if they administer performance reviews that determine raises and bonuses for their people.”

Connection Power is where a person attains influence by gaining favor or simply acquaintance with a powerful person. This power is all about networking.

“If I have a connection with someone that you want to get to, that’s going to give me power. That’s politics in a way,” Lipkin says. “People employing this power build important coalitions with others … Diane’s natural ability to forge such connections with individuals and assemble them into coalitions gives her strong connection power.”

Referent Power is the ability to convey a sense of personal acceptance or approval. It is held by people with charisma, integrity, and other positive qualities. It is the most valuable type of power.

“People with high referent power can highly influence anyone who admires and respects them,” Lipkin says.

Ten Types of Power

Several types of power can influence the outcome of a negotiation. We emphasize the word “can,” because if you have power but don’t use it, the power adds no value to the negotiation.

  1. Position. Some measure of power is conferred on the basis of one’s formal position in an organization. For example, a marketing manager can influence the decisions that affect the marketing department. However, the marketing manager has little power to influence the decisions that affect the finance department.

  2. Knowledge or expertise. People who have knowledge or expertise can wield tremendous power. Of course, knowledge in itself is not powerful. It is the use of knowledge and expertise that confers power. Thus, you could be an incredibly bright person and still be powerless.

  3. Character or ethics. The more trustworthy individuals are, the more power they have in negotiations. The big issue here is whether they do what they say they are going to do—even when they no longer feel like doing it.

  4. Rewards. People who are able to bestow rewards or perceived rewards hold power. Supervisors, with their ability to give raises, hold power over employees. Money can have power. But money, like anything else, holds very little power if it is not distributed.

  5. Punishment. Those who have the ability to create a negative outcome for a counterpart have the power of punishment. Managers who have the authority to reprimand and fire employees hold this type of power. State troopers and highway patrol officers who have the ability to give out speeding tickets also have this power.

  6. Gender. Dealing with someone of the opposite sex can confer power. We have videotaped many negotiation case studies in which the turning point came when a woman casually touched a man’s hand or arm to make her point.

  7. Powerlessness. In some instances, giving up all power can be very powerful. If a kidnapper threatens a hostage with death enough times, the hostage may just challenge the kidnapper to go ahead and kill him. At the point that the hostage gives up power, or control over his own death, the kidnapper actually loses power.

  8. Charisma or personal power. When we ask participants in our seminars for examples of leaders who have had charisma or personal power, invariably the names of Mother Teresa, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan come up. When we ask, “What do all three of these leaders have in common?” participants usually respond, “Passion and confidence in what they believe in.”

  9. Lack of interest or desire. In negotiations, as in many other areas of life, the side with the least interest in what is being negotiated holds the most power. If you are buying a house and you really do not care if you purchase the house you are currently negotiating for or the one down the street, you will most likely hold more power in the negotiation—unless, of course, the sellers could care less if they sell the house today or live in it for another ten years!

  10. Craziness. This may sound funny, but bizarre or irrational behavior can confer a tremendous amount of power. Every organization has someone who blows up or behaves irrationally when confronted with problems. Those who have been exposed to this type of behavior tend to avoid such individuals. As a result, these individuals are not given many tasks to accomplish because others are afraid to ask them.

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