Are We Ready for Power Play?

I was introduced to this topic an year ago and since then employing it as I find it very interesting and useful. Organizational Politics and Power Play are considered as dirty words and cheap tricks by many without realizing that they are essential tacit tools to complete one's job for the benefit of the organization. Workers and employees associating themselves with high value, working on highly visible projects, or working for successful managers are a few signs of Power Play.

Unions and associations are there to represent a common cause and to display a collective power. Industrial espionage and undercover spies are some commonly known acts to seek and control the information of opponents--accessing information to gain additional power. The last example may be an extreme case of power play. Nevertheless, the careful and mediated (and legal?) use of these tools will advance the individual and benefit the organization he belongs too.

The topic on power play is still an art, at least for engineers. Fresh hires and graduates (or anyone for that matter) are not exposed to these concepts at such early stages of their career and it takes a long time, depending on the situation and personality, to learn and build one's power portfolio. This article highlights some of the tools and methods available to understand power dynamics, power audit and to enable one to use it in their leadership roles.

Leaders and Managers

We all know that leaders influence their followers to transform them to achieve their vision unlike managers who have formal authority to exercise on their subordinates. Hence, leaders generally have to bank on different sources of power to be in charge and to set a successful journey towards a new destination. According to the American sociologists French and Raven, there are five bases of power.

Five Bases of Power

  • Positional hierarchy - depends on rank structure and hard to develop quickly. It has some elements of formal authority.
  • Reference relationship - relationship with someone with more power; nepotism; this could go beyond the organization; relationships with unions; relationships with political personality (in developing countries)
  • Resource control - access to resources; It has some authority element. This is one great base to acquire/possess. One could establish a symbiotic relationship and will be able to get job done effectively.
  • Demonstrated expertise - knowledge, special capability and access to information. The scarcity offers strategic advantage.
  • Personality - how one behaves, dresses and communicates. Some of these could be developed and some are natural.

One could easily organize the above sources of power as position dependent and person dependent. Individuals have a great deal of control over the person-dependent power sources and are easy to develop. They are mostly related to doing the right things (visibility, non-routine special tasks, niche contributions, and high value projects), knowing the right people (peers, subordinates, superiors both within and outside your organization/industry and others) and have a clear big picture of things/events relevant to your job and organization.

Power Audit / Network Analysis

One has to continuously do the power audit, informally at least, to understand their power sources and to assess the power dynamics. This is a continuous exercise as these power sources are mostly context dependent

(any reorganization could affect the position dependent power). The network analysis identifies our relationship with respect to peers, superiors, and subordinates within and outside the department and organization.

It identifies whose cooperation/compliance we need and who could potentially oppose our accomplishments. It identifies our relationship with respect to others. This helps us to identify whether we have any currency to exchange with others. Once we have identified the sources of power to tap into and people to influence then we can decide on influence styles for each situation. I am sure there are many management and organizational behavior books/articles to help us start on power audit.

Finally, Prof. Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his latest article in Harvard Business Review, recommends the following steps to understand the principles of power and to use them:

Principles of Power
Mete out resources
Shape behavior through rewards and punishments
Advance on multiple fronts
Make the first move
Co-opt antagonists
Remove rivals - nicely, if possible
Don't draw unnecessary fire
Use the personal touch
Make important relationships work- no matter what
Make the vision compelling


Out of many power sources/ bases discussed above, I see Networking, Communication Skills, Building expertise and/or access to information (continuous learning) are some of the basic power elements /leadership tools one should develop to succeed in the real world. There are many tools available in this era of information technology to help us on that including this very ChEnected effort. I have personally benefitted, and I am sure many of you would have benefited, using these tools to develop oneself. Power audit is a kind of self assessment tool and it will open up new avenues of improvement which you may have not explored (starting monthly lunches with superiors, seeking opportunities in lateral organizations etc) otherwise.

Thoughts? Comments?

image: blue power-flattop341