Power in Organizations - Principles of Management

Power derives from the potential of a person, team, or organization to require others to do certain things. The stress on the word potential is important. People with power may not have to exercise it to get things done. Just the fact that they have power is often sufficient to enable them to influence others to do certain things. The most basic prerequisite of power is that one person or group believes it is dependent on another person or group for something of value.

For example, person A has power over person B by controlling something of value that person B needs to achieve his or her goals (see Figure below). You might have power over others by controlling access to resources, information, or even the privilege of being associated with you! Susan Desmond-Hellmann, for example, has power over other researchers in her organization because she controls access to the financial resources they need to fund drug development projects.

Power is not a one-way street; while a manager has power over her subordinates, they in turn can have countervailing power over her. A manager needs her employees to work productively, and this gives her employees countervailing power. Subordinates have a number of avenues through which they can exercise countervailing power. For example, they can silently protest what they see as an unjust use of power by working less diligently; they can complain about abuses to their manager’s boss; and they can quit and work elsewhere.

Power is often perceptual. People can gain power over others by convincing them that they have something of value. For example, a celebrity probably has power over non celebrities in her social circle because they might perceive themselves as gaining status by being associated with the celebrity. In such cases perception is reality.

Power Dependence

Power has received a lot of bad press. In the 19th century Britain’s Lord Acton made the famous statement that “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Americans in particular are ambivalent about power and are often reluctant to talk about it.

Sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter has written, “Power is America’s last dirty word. It is easier to talk about money—and much easier to talk about sex—than it is to talk about power. People who have it deny it; people who want it do not want to appear to hunger for it; and people who engage in its machinations do so secretly” Yet, Kanter concludes, power is a critical element in effective managerial behavior. Without power, it is difficult to get things done in organizations.

Management author John Kotter makes a similar point. “The overall feeling toward power (in America), which can easily be traced to the nation’s very birth, is negative.” Yet he too notes that the judicious use of power is important for success in management, noting that “from my own observations, I suspect that a large number of managers—especially the young, well-educated ones—perform significantly below their potential because they have not nurtured and developed the instincts needed to effectively acquire and use power.”

Why is power so important to management effectiveness? The answer is that organizations are fundamentally political entities in which different people or units control scarce resources —including money, employee time, and information. To meet her goals, a manager has to recognize that she is dependent on others whose cooperation is needed to get things done. She has to work within the existing distribution of power and accumulate power of her own so she can influence those who control valuable scarce resources needed for the performance of her job.

As a frontline manager in Genentech’s research organization, for example, Susan Desmond-Hellmann had to persuade her superiors to allocate valuable resources—money, scientists, and lab space—to the cancer project she was overseeing. Over time, by virtue of her hard work, expertise, and engaging people skills, she gained the respect of the CEO, Arthur Levinson, which increased her perceived power in the organization and improved her ability to bargain for resources. She also gained more power through promotions, enabling her to exercise greater control over Genentech’s destiny.

Power itself is value-neutral: It is neither good nor bad. What is important is how power is accumulated and used. Power should not be accumulated through unfair or dishonest means or used in an unethical manner. However, power can be accumulated through honest and fair means, and it can be used constructively to do good things in organizations and society in general. Hitler and Gandhi both had power; Hitler used his power to impose terrible suffering on others, whereas Gandhi used his power to liberate an entire nation from British imperial rule.

Power did not corrupt Hitler—he was deranged from the start. In contrast, for individuals with a strong ethical foundation such as Gandhi, the accumulation of power may be the only way to achieve ends that are beneficial via means that are not bad. This is not to deny that power does tend to corrupt; but that tendency can be held in check if managers have strong personal ethics and if the organizations within which they work promote ethical behavior.

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