Power in Organization

Power in Organization

“Power is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance”.

Max Weber, a principal architect of modern sociology

Power is the potential ability to influence the behavior of others. The term power may be applied to people, groups, divisions, organizations, and nations.

For example, a particular department in an organization may be considered powerful, implying that it has the ability to influence the behavior of individuals in other departments in the organization.

The power within organizations affects decision-making for resource allocation, goals, and objectives setting, hiring of individuals, structural and employment decisions, etc.

Power has a social context and is relational in nature. An individual may exhibit power in relation to other people who are influenced by him/her. Similarly, a group may exhibit power in relation to other groups, and so on.

Therefore, the idea of power symbolizes interactions among individuals, where one individual influences and the other is influenced. Moreover, power is dynamic and changes as situations and individuals change.

For example, a manager of a particular department in an organization may influence the behavior of his/her subordinate but only marginally influence individuals from other departments.

Leaders also influence and inspire other individuals. However, power and leadership differ from each other in more than one way. Let us discuss the difference between leadership and power in the next section.

Difference Between Leadership and Power

“If you want to test a man’s character, give him power”

Abraham Lincoln

John F. Kennedy, the 35th U.S. President is well-known for his democratic leadership style. He made a proposal to The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for sending a human to the moon.

Amidst much resistance, Kennedy opted not to exhibit undue power but through his leadership style, managed to convince and motivate the staff to make it happen.

Leadership refers to influencing people with or without the advantage of a formal position or role, whereas power refers to getting people to do things owing to the formal platform or charter an individual holds in an organization.

For example, a person with the personality traits of a leader can influence a colleague’s action, whereas a manager can simply dictate the action. Evidently, power aids in the demonstration of leadership by an individual, whether or not leadership is required.

On the contrary, leadership is destabilized when a demonstration of power is used to exert leadership. In simple words, power grows from the position an individual has in a group, whereas leadership may or may not be corresponding to one’s position in the group.

For example, Mahatma Gandhi inspired millions of individuals to fight for freedom, and he participated with them equally. People followed him because of his inspirational personality.

Leaders are people who can influence the behavior of other individuals owing to certain personality or behavioral traits and not necessarily because of the position of the leader.

Leaders help other individuals in the group to work in coordination with one another, establish their goals and accomplish them for the success of the group.

Power enables an individual to make other individuals act even when they resist, while leaders influence individuals to accomplish common goals, at the same time, enabling them to accomplish these goals.

Considering Abraham Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs, (basic needs, safety needs, social needs, self-esteem needs, and self-actualization needs), an individual who craves power is fixed at the second level of safety needs.

On the contrary, an effective leader strives for self-actualization without craving for power to earn his/her dignity. An effective leader is motivated to achieve common objectives for the welfare of the whole group and not focus on his/her individual gains.

There is a thin line that differentiates leadership from power. Leadership is naturally endowed with power, and power has the potential to corrupt a leader’s actions and thoughts.

Power provides a leader with control over organizational resources, which affords him/her the ability to influence other individuals by conferring or concealing these resources. After gaining power, several leaders are motivated to enhance their personal capacity for domination.

Subsequently, leaders may tend to behave in unacceptable ways to protect their power without considering that their actions may harm the group’s well-being.

Sources of Power

Sources of power are based on the interpersonal relationships between supervisors and subordinates in an organization. One of the most distinguished studies on power and its sources was conducted by social psychologists, John French and Bertram Raven, in 1959.

They identified five sources of power as shown in Figure:

Let us discuss the various sources of power further:

Reward Power

It is influencing behavior by rewarding desirable behaviors. For example, praise, promotions, bonus, etc. are rewarded to employees in an organization as a result of their performance, which motivates them to continue to exhibit that behavior.

Reward power results from an individual’s ability to compensate other individuals for compliance with a particular or desirable behavior.

Coercive Power

It is influencing behavior by punishing undesirable behaviors. For example, subordinates may comply with a particular behavior for fear of getting punished for not adhering to supervisory directives.

Punishment may be in the form of reprimands, undesirable work assignments, strict work rules, pay cuts, or suspension.

Legitimate Power

It is influencing behavior owing to the individual’s formal position in the organization. Individuals respond to this influence to acknowledge the supervisor’s legitimate right to commend certain behaviors.

For example, in an organization, a manager is authorized to make decisions related to a specific area of responsibility, such as production, quality control, marketing, accounting, or customer service.

The area of responsibility handled by a manager defines the extent to which the manager may exercise legitimate power to influence behavior. Sometimes, subordinates may also exhibit legitimate power.

For example, a safety inspector in an organization has the legitimate power to halt the production process in the case of a safety violation, even if the plant manager objects.

Expert Power

Expert power is an individual’s ability to influence the behavior of other individuals owing to his/her competencies, talents, or specialized knowledge and skills. To demonstrate proficiency in implementing, analyzing, evaluating, and controlling the tasks of employees, managers acquire expert power.

Expert power may however not be significant in the case of new employees and managers in an organization. For example, in spite of possessing expert knowledge about accounting theory and practices, a new manager has to demonstrate his/her expertise over time to be recognized and accepted in the organization. Only after recognition among seniors, a new manager will be able to exhibit expert power.

Referent Power

Referent power is an individual’s ability to influence the behavior of other individuals as a consequence of being respected, admired, or liked by others. For example, an employee’s desire to imitate an old, experienced, or skilled manager may cause him/her to copy the same managerial style.

Often, senior managers have some referent ability to influence the behavior of younger managers in an organization. Referent power is generally associated with people possessing admirable personalities, characteristics, charisma, or reputation.

Therefore, it is often linked with political leaders, movie stars, sports personalities, or other famous people.

Identifying the Sources of Power in Organisation

Organizational power focuses on the power of managers over subordinates in an organization. However, a significant aspect of organizational power is that the characteristics of each situation affect or determine the power within the organization.

For example, the head of the Human Resources (HR) department of an organization has more power when salaries and compensations of employees are to be decided, whereas he/she may lack the power to delegate work responsibilities to employees in case of a new project.

Situational characteristics refer to the structure of the organization, the opportunity to influence others, access to influential people and critical resources, the kind of position an individual holds, etc.

Structural and situational sources of power in organizations may result in unequal access to information, resources, and decision-making within different departments in an organisation. For example, HR personnel have access to the personal details of all employees.

The structural and situational sources of power in organizations are categorized as shown in Figure:

Let us discuss the various structural and situational sources of power in organizations:

Knowledge as Power

This implies that individuals, groups, or departments in an organisation, which possess knowledge critical in the attainment of organisation’s objectives, have a certain power. Individuals, who can control information about existing operations, develop information regarding alternatives, or acquire knowledge about future events, possess massive power to influence the behavior of other individuals in the organization.

Resources as Power

Organizations require various resources, including man, material, and money, to carry out their operations. The significance of particular resources for an organization’s success increases with respect to the difficulty in obtaining these resources.

For example, if a manufacturing organization needs a particular machine for production, which is unavailable with the supplier, the machine’s significance as a resource in this organization increases.

Thus, the idea of resources as power implies that the individuals, groups, or departments in an organization, which provide essential or scarce resources, possess the power within the organization.

Resources that are the most crucial to an organization depend on the situation, the organization’s objectives, the economic conditions, and the products or services being offered by the organization. For example, software engineers can be the most crucial resource in a software company.

Decision-Making as Power

Decisions in organizations are made with the consent of several participating individuals and groups. The idea of decision-making as a power in organizations implies that individuals, groups, or departments possess the power to the extent that they can affect the decision-making process.

For example, the market research department in an organization can change the decision of the senior management to launch a particular product. Individuals, groups, and departments may influence the strategies, policies, or objectives being developed, the various alternatives being considered, and the potential outcomes being discussed.

Networks as Power

It is a common observation that managers in an organization possess greater power if they have links with other influential individuals in the organization. Traditionally, superior–subordinate vertical relationships are important aspects of power, but these linkages are not enough for exhibiting power in organizations.

Horizontal linkages, with both internal as well as external networks, play an important role in the possession of power within organizations. For example, a project manager in an organization is able to get funds sanctioned easily owing to his/her good relations with the head of the finance department of the organization.

The idea of networks as power implies that affiliations and coalitions, both inside and outside the organization, act as sources of power within organizations.

Power Tactics

Individuals use certain strategies to gain power and manipulate the bases of power for specific actions such as influencing the behavior of other individuals, gaining a particular advantage, etc.

These strategies are referred to as power tactics. Power tactics are used by individuals on their own (individual), within a group (intra-group), and between groups (inter-group).

Power tactics used by individuals can be categorized as shown in Figure :

Let us discuss these power tactics further:

Individual and Intra-group Tactics

On the basis of how managers influence their subordinates, co-workers, and superiors, seven power tactics have been identified, which are as follows:


This implies setting a deadline for the others to comply with a request, commanding others to do what they were expected to do, emphasizing the importance of complying with the request, and repeatedly reminding others of their obligations.

For example, a manager frequently goes to a subordinate’s desk to check if a task is finished.


This implies molding a person in a way that he willingly accepts to fulfill the request. The individual tends to flatter other individuals prior to making a request, exaggerating the importance of complying with the request and being friendly with others when requesting their cooperation.

For example, an employee praises a colleague’s speed in completing work and then requests him/her to help out with a task.


This implies using facts and figures in a logical manner such that the request being made is detailed and prepared well. The rationale for the request is presented to individuals, along with a list of duties and expectations from the individuals.

This clearly highlights the importance of the request and the individual’s role in accomplishing a task. For example, a manager maintains a sheet regarding the project that clearly states each team member’s role, date of delivery for each task, etc. Team members are assigned work according to the sheet.


This implies making requests, along with a promise of rewards, on the completion of work. Managers may promise a promotion or increment to individuals on accomplishing a task or threaten to withhold promotion and rule out salary increments on the non-completion of tasks.

Higher Authority

This implies taking the support of individuals holding higher ranks in the organizational hierarchy while requesting subordinates to accomplish a task. Higher officials informally back managers in their projects or assignments to expand the importance of the task.

For example, a delivery head addresses a whole team, along with the manager, emphasizing the significance of the project.


This implies exchanging favors and benefits through a process of negotiation. The individual seeking a favor may remind the other individual of the favors the former has bestowed on the latter in the past. This obliges the other individual to favor the individual in the completion of a task.

For example, a manager lends a resource from his/her team to another because of having received such help in the past from the same team.


This implies getting help from other individuals in the organization through alliances and coalitions with co-workers and subordinates. Coalitions are more prominent in the case of interdependent departments in organizations, where the support of one team is necessary to accomplish the objectives of the other team.

For example, in a software company, a software development team has to coordinate with the testing team to accomplish deliveries

Inter-group Tactics

When one group in an organization influences the other, the former exerts power on the latter. Based on this, three factors of power tactics have been identified, which are as follows:

Uncertainty Absorption

There are specialized groups within organizations that perform a variety of functions such as industrial relationships, bargaining, vendor decisions, etc. At times, when complex situations arise in an organization, the guidance and advice of specialized groups are sought by other departments.

In such situations, specialized groups exert a certain amount of power over other departments and individuals. For example, in a manufacturing organization, the production department is not cleared of delivery unless the quality department approves the final product. Here, the quality department exerts some power over the production department.


When organizations have to deal with complex situations, if the guidance of the specialized group is substituted with the guidance and advice of an external agency or consultant, the power of the specialized group is reduced or eliminated. For example, in the manufacturing organization example, if a group from the client organization approves of the final product, the quality department loses power over the production department.

Integrative Importance

When a department’s services are required consistently by other departments in an organization for smooth functioning, integrative importance comes into play. This implies that the department may exert power over other departments owing to its importance in the functioning of other departments. For example, the IT support team in an organization is required to extend its support to other departments in the organization.

Power in Groups

Lata is a manager heading a team of 10 people, among which Rakhi is appointed a temporary team leader. However, several team members find that Rakhi dominates them, tends to be rude, and continuously takes credit for work done by other team members when reporting to Lata.

However, owing to her team leader’s position, the other team members do not act against her. One day, Vivek, one of the team members, apprises Lata of the situation. After Lata is convinced, she calls for a team reshuffle, loans Rakhi to another team, and temporarily appoints Vivek as the team leader. Vivek proves to be responsible and the team is happy to be led by him.

Power is a fundamental need within groups to influence the behavior of other individuals and make important group decisions. Unfortunately, sometimes members of a group express their need for power in inappropriate and socially unacceptable ways. For example, in the scenario, Rakhi’s behavior is not appropriate.

However, there are rational and devoted members in a group, who are promoted to positions with higher responsibility and authority. For example, in the scenario, Vivek turns out to be a devoted leader.

Such individuals often see themselves as having greater responsibility towards the group and not as having greater power. They view themselves as having greater accountability towards the group members and the objectives of the group.

Power abusers, such as Rakhi, on the other hand, often consider themselves superior to other group members in less influential positions. They enjoy the feeling of being in control of the destinies of the group and its members.

Another specific observation in a group is the use of personal power. Exercising personal power to an extent that it can have a negative impact on group effectiveness is unethical to use of power. For example, in the scenario, Rakhi takes credit for someone else’s work.

Having the knowledge of the ethical use of power assists individuals in creating a culture that enhances the well-being of all members of a group. This helps in improving the motivation, morale, and performance of all the members within a group.

Such groups, where power is used for the welfare of all group members, are more optimistic, confident, and dedicated towards the accomplishment of overall group objectives.


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