Contingencies of Power in Organizations - Principles of Management

Imagine that you have expert power by virtue of your ability to forecast and possibly even prevent dramatic changes in the organization’s environment. Does this expertise mean that you are influential? Not necessarily! Power is translated into influence over organizational outcomes only under certain conditions. Called the contingencies of power, these four conditions are substitutability, centrality, discretion, and visibility.

These contingencies are not sources of power; rather they determine the extent to which people can leverage the power they have to make things happen within organizations. You may have lots of expert power, but you will not be able to influence others with this power base if the contingency factors are not in place.

Substitutability refers to the availability of alternatives. Power is strongest when someone has a monopoly over an important resource that has no substitutes. Conversely, power decreases as the number of alternative sources of the critical resource increases. If you are the only person in an organization with expertise on an issue, you will be more powerful than if several other people in your company possess this expertise.

Substitutability refers not only to other sources that offer the same resource, but also to substitutes for the resource itself. For instance, the power of labor unions is diminished when companies introduce technologies that replace the need for their union members.

At one time a strike by telephone employees would have shut down operations in a telephone company; but computerized systems and other technological innovations that have reduced the need for telephone operators and other personnel let telephone companies continue offering service during labor strikes. Technology can be a substitute for employees and consequently can reduce union power.

Centrality refers to the degree and nature of interdependence between the power holder and others. Public transportation workers have high centrality in cities that rely on public transportation (such as New York) because their actions affect many people quickly.

If they go on strike, they can shut down a city. Think about your own centrality for a moment: If you decided not to show up for work or school tomorrow, how many people would be affected, and how much time would pass before they were affected? If you have high centrality, many people in the organization would be affected adversely and immediately by your absence. If you have very low centrality, no one would be affected.

Discretion refers to the freedom to exercise judgment—to make decisions without referring to a specific rule or receiving permission from someone else. Discretion, or autonomy, is another important contingency of power in organizations. Consider the plight of firstline supervisors.

It may seem that they have hierarchical power over employees, but this power can becurtailed by specific rules. Such lack of discretion reduces the power of supervisors, even though they may have access to some of the power bases described earlier. “Middle managers are very much ‘piggy-in-the-middle,’” complains a middle manager at Britain’s National Health System. “They have little power, only what senior managers give them.”

Visibility refers to the extent to which a power holder is known, or visible, to others. People with expert power who are not visible within the organization may not have much influence; they may not be able to leverage their power to influence organizational outcomes. For example, several years ago as a junior copywriter at an advertising agency, Mimi Cook submitted an idea for a potential client to her boss, who then presented it to the agency’s founder, Jay Chiat.

Chiat was thrilled with the concept, but Cook’s boss “never mentioned the idea came from me,” recalls Cook. Cook confronted her boss, who claimed the oversight was unintentional. However, when a similar incident occurred a few months later, Cook left the agency for another firm. Cook’s problem was that she was not visible within the organization.

Cook, who has since progressed to become associate creative director at another ad agency, knows that power does not flow to unknown people in the organization. Those who control valued resources or knowledge can use that power only when others are aware of them, which requires visibility. One way to increase visibility is to take people-oriented jobs and work on projects that require frequent interaction with senior executives.

“You can take visibility in steps,” advises a pharmaceutical executive. “You can start by making yourself visible in a small group, such as a staff meeting. Then when you’re comfortable with that, seek out larger arenas.”


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