Nov
02

Power: Is yours over or with?

by  Jane Perdue  |  Leadership Development

I recently made a speech to a group of business people about power. After the talk, a small group gathered where we explored their personal definitions of power:

“Power means you’re the boss, and people do what you tell them to do.”
“Power is your ability to ensure that things get done.”
“Power is all about skills and abilities and how you work with others to create results.”
“Power is bad. It’s intimidating, oppressive and something I don’t want.”
“Power is influencing others to be their best.”

Sources of Power

Like leadership and innovation, power is a word that elicits a multitude of definitions and reactions, depending on whether your experience with power has been win-win, win-lose or lose-lose. French philosopher and professor Michel Foucault said “power is everywhere…because it comes from everywhere.” Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, in their work The Bases of Social Power, offer a more structured view of five significant sources of power.

•Positional – power associated with one’s place in society, an organization, a hierarchy, etc.
•Coercive – power derived from the ability to punish and/or force compliance.
•Reward – one’s power to compensate another.
•Expert – power that flows from one’s knowledge, skills and abilities.
•Referent – one’s power to attract others based on charisma and interpersonal skills.

Power is a fact of life. Like leadership, it doesn’t require a job title. Your duty is choosing how you’ll use yours. Will your power style perpetually be power-over or power-with?

Power Styles

Using French and Raven’s five sources of power, let’s check out some observable behaviors of power-over and power-with so you can assess your predominant style.

If you have positional power:
•Does everyone know you’re the boss? Is your approach command and control – is it my way or the highway? Do you demand unyielding perfection?

Or…

•Do you encourage collaboration and promote alliances? Is it OK to fail, even encouraged? Is healthy conflict a normal part of business?

In thinking about coercive power,

•Do you use punishment to force submission and drive compliance? For those who challenge your authority, do you threaten them or give them the cold shoulder?

Or…

•Do you use discipline as a way to teach? Do you require both personal responsibility and accountability?

When you’re in a position to reward:

•Are your incentives static and inflexible? Are bonuses linked to robotic, de-motivating outcomes? Are your rewards few and far between, grudgingly given?

Or…

•Are you free with your recognition? Do you involve others in designing motivating rewards? Is your reward system based on Daniel Pink’s philosophy of purpose, mastery and autonomy?

When you’re the subject matter expert:

•Are you quick to remind people that you’re the only source for their information? Do you tell and direct? Do you protect your turf by hoarding information?

Or…

•Are you a continual learner who increases your own knowledge base while freely sharing what you know with others? Do you show and guide? Do you invite others to collaborate and explore with you?

When thinking about your referent power,

•Have you created a cult of personality? Do you have a tight inner circle where access to you is limited? Do others describe you as ego-centric?

Or…

•Is your world one of engagement and inclusion with all? Are you a mentor? Do you sponsor others? Do you use your charisma for a greater good?

Neither power style is applicable to every situation. What’s key is your ability to flow between power-with and power-over as appropriate.

The question to ask yourself is: does my power style flow, or is it stuck?

About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
Leadership futurist. Challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. Chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, both/and & shoe lover.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

David Burkus  |  02 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Good post. I think we tend to talk about power as a negative. It’s merely a tool…and can be used negatively or positively.

Deborah Costello  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

I think it is a leader’s obligation to use their power to do good. In a hierarchical structure power differences are inevitable. What matters is not so much how much you have but what you do with it… at least from my perspective… thank you for the post Jane…

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