Power is the ability to exercise control over a person or group. Everyone has power, yet people differ in the kinds of power they possess and how they utilize their power. Within the workplace, there are seven common forms of power: coercive, connection, reward, legitimate, referent, information and expert.
A person able to punish others for not following orders has coercive power. Coercive power is most effective when it is used sparingly and strategically in certain instances, such as the threat of termination to an employee sexually harassing a coworker. When coercive power is utilized on a regular basis, however, fear and dysfunction can result. Because coercive power relies on the threat of something negative and highlights an employee’s subordinate position in the organization, consistently coerced employees often grow to resent their managers at the cost of job satisfaction and motivation. Employees in fear of punishment may refuse to work on duties not stated in their contract, often resist collaboration or offering their opinion, and tend to avoid their manager.
Connection power is gained by knowing and being listened to by influential people or the perception of such by others. If others believe a person is friendly with those in power, they may be more willing to do what that person asks or try harder to please that person. Increasing connections and mastering political networking lead to a greater potential for connection power. A person with connection power, though, is not necessarily respected by others within the organization but rather is a conduit used to gain the respect of those in legitimate positions of authority within the organization.
Reward power comes from the ability to give rewards to other employees. Rewards are not always monetary, such as improved work hours and words of praise. When rewards are given strategically, they can be strong motivators. When rewards are given too often or haphazardly, however, they can have a negative impact such that employees may start to focus on achieving rewards more so than performing the work at hand.
Legitimate power comes when employees believe a person can give orders based on his position within the organization, such as when a manager orders staff members to complete a task and they comply because the orders came from their superior. Power based on position is not always effective as it’s based on a title rather than respect. Ultimately, a lack of collaboration can result.
People who are liked, respected and whom other employees desire to emulate have referent power. Supervisors who lead by example, treat employees with respect, seek their collaboration and gain the trust of their employees possess referent power. This power often takes time to develop and may not be an effective means of power in organizations with numerous short-term employees or a high turn-over rate.
People with access to valued information possess informational power. In after school programs, for example, instructors working with youth understand the students and know their families more so than the director that does not work directly with the youth and families on a daily basis. The director, in this case, needs information about the students and their families from the line staff. These staff members possess informational power. This power can be quickly fleeting because, once the needed information is shared, the person’s power is gone.
The greater a person’s knowledge or specialized skill set, the greater her potential for expert power. People gain power based on the perception of their greater knowledge of the task at hand than other employees. In several cases, employees with expert power are outranked by others. Technology experts are typically in this situation. For example, if the CEO’s computer is not running properly, the CEO will likely listen to what the computer repair person recommends should be done to fix the problem. As information is shared and more employees gain the same knowledge or skills, expert power tends to diminish over time.