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Powers of Power

M.J. Arul

As managers, you will be dependent on the activities of a variety of other people to do your job effectively. You will, therefore, have to influence these people so that they will do what you want them to do. Such influence is power. Power, in this context, may be defined as the potential influence you have over others in such a way that the others do what they otherwise would not do; it is the ability to cause a change in the cognition, attitude, behaviour and/or emotion of others. Power so defined is a keystone to managerial effectiveness. Over 70% of the managers in McClelland's research revealed a high power orientation compared with men in general; successful managers scored even higher in their power motive.

How does one acquire power? Contrary to our stereotype, power is not confined to authority, which is formally ascribed to a position. Power as a potential influence on people can arise from various sources, some of which are discussed below:


People can be influenced by information. For example, your subordinates' behaviour or performance can be improved by providing them with clear details of what they are to do and when and how they are to do it. Here, the content of the information influences or controls people by causing a change in their cognitive elements; the nature of the information giver is not important as long as the logic of the message is clear to those who receive the information. You can use, for example, a mathematical formula independently and effectively long after you have forgotten the likeness of the teacher who taught you so well once upon a time. Clear and adequate information, therefore, is a source of power.

Possession of information that is critical to others can make one extremely powerful.


Superior knowledge can earn you power. People who perceive you as an expert in a field are ready to be guided or directed by you in it. Such perceived expertise may also "spread" to areas other than the one you have specialised in. Such spread or "halo effect", as it is known in Psychology, enhances your power. (But be on your guard--the spread-effect may enhance your expert reputation beyond its effective boundaries.)

While informational power is message-oriented, expert power is source-oriented. What is important, therefore, for you to be able to use this power is to get yourself recognised as an expert. Once you have established your superiority, people will often go by your word because it comes from you--an expert. The scramble for titles, degrees and recurring diplomas even among those who are already in high positions may be to acquire this power.

Coercion and Reward

Compliance may be achieved by punishing noncompliance. Coercion or forcible compulsion, therefore, does influence people's behaviour. A necessary attendant to this type of power is surveillance. That is, a constant watch over people's behaviour is required to spot and punish a breach. Compliance is likely to occur just as long as the master's eye is believed to be round the corner and noncompliance erupts when out of sight. Such is the case especially when severe coercion is coupled with nonlegitimate power. We shall discuss legitimacy of power a little later.

You can control others' behaviour also by giving or withholding rewards--with no threat of active punishment. By making people dependent on you for the fulfillment of some of their salient needs, you can really bridle them. Here, too, surveillance is called for.

Model Personality

Individuals, as social beings, have a need to know if they are thinking, feeling or acting correctly. They fulfill this need by constantly comparing and evaluating themselves against a comparison person or a group of persons. Your "referent power" would, thus, stem from the other person's desire to identify himself with you; that is, when he looks to you as the basis for determining whether he is doing right. You can, therefore, have power over others by looking and behaving in ways that they respect or admire.


Authority is the official relationship of a "superior" with his/her subordinate. It is a rational-legal component of any formal organisation or contract. In order to ensure that tasks get done so as to achieve the organisational objectives, a formal organisation authorises its various role occupants (proportionate to their positions and attendant responsibilities) to demand compliance from those in subordinate positions. Coercion and rewards are often made components of this power for effective implementation of authority. Authority or "official power" is position-dependent: It comes and goes with the position and, no matter who occupies the position, its scope is the same.

Authority wields power, or is complied with, because people feel it proper to receive orders or directions from one who is officially placed in a position to prescribe behaviours for them.

Some people who do not have the authority may derive authoritative power simply by being "close" to the one who has the authority.

Obligation & Altruism

Most people have a sense of personal obligation : If you do them a favour or if you are a friend in need, they will feel indebted and will oblige you by acceding to your "requests" later on.

Also, when you "express" your readiness to enable the other person to be "altruistic", you can bait him into it.

Age and Deference

There is a general tendency among us (though it may be steadily waning these days) to comply with the requests and follow the advice of old people--in deference to their age. Youngsters, too, may at times have their wishes and demands granted purely because they are young.

Unlike expert power, which is based on superior knowledge, and referent power, where the basis is personal admiration, deferent power arises from a consideration for age.

Legitimacy of Power

All social power, no matter from what source, has to be legitimate in order to be effective and durable. People will accept your power or be influenced by you in your favour only when they perceive that it is proper for them to do so. You could establish the legitimacy of your power over others by matching your modus operandi with their values; people value correct and adequate information, expertise, social comparison, authority positions, personal obligations, and age. These are, then, the sources of social power. Coercion does not seem to have a legitimacy of its own, but often acquires it by being associated, even remotely, with sources such as authority, tradition and charisma, the legitimacy of which is unequivocally accepted. Day-to-day observations show that authority and coercion, though different, often coexist. Reward, too, is frequently linked with authority.


Power or the ability to influence others can develop from any of the different sources discussed above. In concrete situations, however, power seldom arises from any of them separately; usually various combinations of sources are involved. Such combinations may be sequential or simultaneous.

Authority is just one source of power and is limited by levels or positions. Power can arise from many a source and be possessed by all levels in any amount. The various sources of power are, in fact, resources available to the manager. His effectiveness or success depends on how judiciously and maturely he utilises them. For example, authority can occasionally be dispensed with and additional power acquired from other sources. McClelland's broad-based research has found that high "inhibition" or self-control in the use of power is characteristic of effective managers.

To use power effectively one should first of all be sure of what sources of power are within one's domain; one should know one's power inventory. If, for instance, you did not possess a particular expertise, but inadvertently or otherwise attempted to have recourse to expert power, your fraudulence would soon be detected and would give rise to what is called "negative power". Power is said to be negative when influence produces a change which is opposed to the intentions of the influencer. Anti- establishmentarianism (represented by the Hippies, for instance) and mutiny are examples of referent and authoritative powers, respectively, turning negative.

While choosing a particular source of power, one should also see to the appropriateness of the choice. A person, for example, with a host of unenviable habits, tastes, etiquette and speech style may only be additionally unwise to choose to use referent power. The same way, if you happen to be basically a "softy", you may not be able to use coercion effectively.

Situational factors can also affect the effectiveness of a given type of power. Suppose you are highly qualified in a particular skill or field of knowledge. This fact may warrant your use of expert power, but may not guarantee its effectiveness. What if the person you have to influence happens to be as qualified as you? Information or authority may deliver the goods in a situation like this. Use of coercive power may carry the risk of unpopularity, but when the situation is crucial and other sources of power do not seem to work,--well, you have no alternative!

The culture of a place, too, can determine the appropriateness and impact of a given type of power. Think up an example.

Tail Piece

Of all the sources of power, information appears to be the most stable and most befitting of a value system that respects individual freedom of choice. Informational power, as we have discussed above, is socially independent. However, to take effect, it has to be dependent on other elements in the cognitive structure of the influencee, since the potential influencee has to first bring himself/herself to at least listen to the message. And effective listening, as we know, is a function of a host of variables, including motivation of the listener and credibility of the source. Other appropriate bases of influence may, therefore, have to be made use of before informational power can take over. For example, your maths teacher must have initially exercised his authority and expert power when he asked you to memorise certain formulae; it was only later that you acquired the logic behind those formulae. Different sources of power may, thus, be suitably employed in the correct measure so as to ultimately lead to informational power, wherever the latter is possible and desirable.


1. French, J.R.P., and B.H. Raven. The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in Social Power. Ann Abror : University of Michigan Press, 1959.

2. Mc Clelland, D.C. and D.H. Burnhan. Power is the great motivator: Harvard Business Review, 1976, 54 (2); 100-110.

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