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Management Resource Library

Power: A Management Reality

 

One sensitive topic in current management literature is the role of power in the management process. We will not dwell here on the raging debate over the ethical appropriateness of managers wielding power during the performance of their duties, but rather concentrate our attention on some common techniques employed (consciously or unconsciously) by managers to acquire and use power.

Power – What is It?: In the real world, power is simply the ability to control or influence the action/inaction of others. Since we all operate in the real world (this could be my first bad assumption) and we constantly interface with each other, it would seem prudent for us to have a general awareness of the magical bag of power techniques.

Power – Ways to Acquire It?: In his book Power Management, John Kotter highlights the following methods:

  • Gain control over tangible resources. Control of resources clearly puts a manager in a better position to influence others and to acquire other types of power. Besides the company budget director, other more notable examples are the OPEC oil cartel and wartime Marine Corps supply sergeants.
  • Obtain information and control information channels. In a complex organization, information can be even more important than traditional tangible resources. Since reliable information in any organization is scarce, power will inure to its holder.
  • Create a sense of obligation. Some managers are very skillful at identifying opportunities for doing favors that may not be very costly but are nevertheless greatly appreciated. This builds up those power IOUs.
  • Build a good professional reputation. Still one of the best methods. An expert reputation earned through performance and achievement will be laden with power opportunities. As Kotter emphasizes: “Today’s better educated managerial workforce has a greater respect for expertise. And today’s technologically complex organization obviously has a greater need for it.”
  • Encourage identification. Managers can gain power in relationships by fostering others’ unconscious identification with them or with ideas they “stand for.” People need to look up to someone who can make them feel strong and confident despite all the problems that they face, and who can make them feel they are doing something meaningful. The manager who can fill this need will enhance his power base.
  • Create perceived dependence. Managers often gain power by feeding others beliefs that they are dependent on the managers for either help or security. The more dependent other people perceive themselves to be, the more they will be inclined to cooperate with such managers. It is important here to remember that “actual” and “perceived” dependence can be quite different and this is where a good “poker face” is often used.

Characteristics of Influential Managers: Managers who are successful at acquiring and maintaining power share a number of common characteristics according to Kotter.

·         They tend to be very sensitive to where power exists in their organizations. They go far beyond formal organization charts and job descriptions to learn who really controls resources and information, what the important interpersonal relationships are, and what people they are really dependent on.

·         They take calculated risks and invest their power. They use their power in hopes of generating more (they don’t squirrel it away).

·         They have an intuitive understanding of the various ways to use power. They can recognize the specific conditions of a situation and then select an influence method that is compatible with those conditions.

·         They are sensitive to what others consider to be legitimate behavior in using power. They don’t misuse the power they’ve acquired. They use this valuable resource wisely and appropriately.

Power and Job Dependence: Kotter also emphasizes that the greater the amount of job-related dependence, the more time and energy the manager tends to put into power-oriented behavior in order to cope with that dependence. For example, the director of a large city hospital would be more dependent on others (community leaders, the press, labor unions, funding agencies, etc.) for successful job performance than let’s say a manager of a small machine shop. The hospital director as a result would spend more of his managerial time involved in public relations and power-oriented activities than his machine shop counterpart. The notable point here is that, for such job dependent positions, power-oriented activities become a major and integral part of the overall duties associated with those positions.

Summary

Power is a management reality. To deny its existence, will not make it go away. As advisors to client organizations (as well as managers in our own firms), we should be aware of power as a managerial tool and how it can be used wisely, appropriately and ethically to further organizational goals and performance.