Forms of Power in the Workplace

Power, simply defined, is the ability to influence others. In the workplace, we might tend to think of power as following a company’s organizational chart – those higher up have more power than those lower down.

However, power can show up in many forms and be a lot less straightforward than an org chart suggests.

In fact, researchers in organizational behaviour and sociology recognize five forms of power in workplaces. Employees can certainly set professional development goals related to promotion, but they can also be aware of, and use, the forms of power immediately available to them.

For employers, understanding power dynamics better can help foster a positive and productive workplace culture.

Who Gives You Your Power?

An individual’s power in the workplace can come from the organization itself, in terms of one’s roles, responsibilities, and access to resources. There are other forms of power, however, that derive from the individual’s own personality, experiences, and education, and cannot be given or taken away by the organization. I discuss both forms below.

Power from Your Organization

Legitimate Power

Managers and executives are granted the right by their organization to request certain behaviours from others: a manager may assign projects, distribute workloads, implement policies regarding sick days and lateness, and so on. This legitimate power is one form of power that most employees are familiar with and may, at least occasionally, bristle under.

However, employees also have rights. They are granted legitimate power by federal and provincial laws, to which their employers are accountable. For example, employees have the right to refuse to take on unsafe work or tolerate harassment. Both employers and employees need to understand employees’ access to legitimate power, in order to create a safe and supportive workplace.

Reward Power

When bosses determine employees’ salaries or surprise employees with a catered lunch, they are exercising their reward power. Their legitimate power (described above) gives them control over the resources that can be used to reward employees.

Forward-thinking organizations, though, will also give reward power to frontline workers, through opportunities to provide feedback, such as a 360-degree review. In this kind of review, managers receive feedback from both those they report to and those who report to them. This process can have a positive effect on manager-report relations. According to Canadian Organizational Behaviour co-author Steven McShane:

“Supervisors tend to behave differently toward employees after 360-degree feedback is introduced.”

Employees may also have reward power in relation to their colleagues, such as through systems that let them nominate peers for special recognition for their work.

Coercive Power

Coercive power is the ability to punish others, as when supervisors fire or threaten to fire workers for underperformance. Coercive power can also manifest between employees of similar rank, as when workers ostracize someone who is consistently late with their contributions, or withhold information from a colleague who has been too pushy. In this way, employees can have a profound effect on the ease or difficulty of a colleague’s work life.

Individual Power & Professional Development

Expert Power

The one guy in the office who knows how to work the air conditioner? He’s got expert power. Expert power derives from an individual’s possession of knowledge or skills.

Because this expert power comes from within the individual’s brain, it is neither granted nor controlled by the business.

Smart organizations, though, know how to leverage expert power on their teams. For example, experts in equipment used for manufacturing may anticipate the advent of new technologies, so that their business has time to implement new tech before its competitors.

For employees, expert power is particularly important in terms of setting and reaching goals. They can pursue continuing education and take advantage of workplace training programs in order to enhance their contributions to the organization and thereby increase their own value and power.

Referent Power

When others seem to be drawn to a particular individual, that individual is demonstrating referent power. Others identify with, like, and respect them. Referent power is related to the concept of charisma, and it can be a key component of effective leadership; Barack Obama and Pierre Trudeau might be deemed as having had referent power, in addition to other forms of power.

Employers should be aware that managers may not always complement their legitimate power with referent power. Moreover:

Due to referent power, those with the most influence in a business may not be those with the highest rank.

Working with and understanding these key influencers in your business can be highly beneficial. If you want to implement a new CRM, for example, getting these charismatic individuals on board first can be a key driver in successful user adoption.

For employees, the notion of referent power is a reminder that relationship-building can be crucial in order to achieve professional goals. Taking time to connect with others, within and outside of your department and within and outside of your organization, can provide crucial access to information and resources, as well as opportunities for moral support, advice, and personal growth.

The Power of Social Networks

Social networks, which are related to referent power, are an essential concept in any discussion of influence in the contemporary workforce. While we tend to think of social networks in relation to social media, in-person networks can be just as, if not more, important.

Social networks are groups of people connected to one another through interdependence or similarities. For instance, employees who form a book club have developed a social network that sets them apart from others; employees who work in the same department will also be part of the same social network.

These networks are essential because they generate power for their members. Members are more likely to share information with each other and think of each other when asked for recommendations for a new role or opportunity.

Information sharing is especially crucial. If you are a representative for your department at company meetings, you control the flow of information to your team, which imbues you with power. If you work out with friends in several different departments, you may also have special access to information.

For employees, this demonstrates the validity of the old advice that networking is essential for career success, because it increases your access to information and resources. For employers, it’s important to be aware of social networks, even if you don’t intend to intervene in them. According to Eran Barak, Senior VP of Marketing at Thomson Reuters:

“You look at an org chart within a company and you see the distribution of power that should be. You look at the dynamics in the social networks [to] see the distribution of power that is.”

Employers and employees also need to be aware of social networks as potentially exclusionary, as they can sometimes be formed around innate prejudices regarding class, gender, race, culture, sexuality, and age. Companies looking to cultivate a positive culture for all need to ensure that they work to remove barriers to employment, leadership, and inclusion.

Professional Development & Canadian Government Funding

The Canadian government funding landscape provides several programs that support employee empowerment, including training grants to support skills development, hiring grants to foster inclusion for under-represented groups, and funds that help businesses connect with potential international research partners or export clients to expand networks.

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Written by

Sunnie holds a PhD in English from Dalhousie University, and has published her writing in several academic journals, as well as in magazines, newspapers, and blogs. She combines years of experience as a professor in English with practical experience in the private sector as a trainer in writing and analytical thinking.

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