Power and Politics

By Luthans, F.

Edited by Paul Ducham


The power motive is defined as the need to manipulate others and have superiority over them. Extrapolating from this definition of the need for power, power itself can be defined as the ability to get an individual or group to do something—to get the person or group to change in some way. The individual who possesses power has the ability to manipulate or change others. Such a definition of power distinguishes it from authority and influence.
      One of the primary sources of definitional controversy revolves around the question: Is power the observed influence over others, or is it merely the potential to influence? An argument can be made that those individuals who have the most power are the least likely to need to demonstrate outward evidence that they hold it. Their mere presence is enough to change the behaviors of others without lifting a finger or saying a word. This makes the study of power much more difficult, but at the same time conceptually should not be ignored. An employee who takes the back stairs to avoid confronting an intimidating coworker is being influenced without the coworker even knowing of the power held over the frightened coworker.
     Authority legitimatizes and is a source of power. Authority is the right to manipulate or change others. Power need not be legitimate. In addition, the distinction must be made between top-down classical, bureaucratic authority and Barnard’s concept of bottom-up authority based on acceptance. In particular, Barnard defined authority as “the character of a communication (order) in a Formal Organization by virtue of which it is accepted by a contributor to or ‘member’ of the organization as governing the action he contributes.”
    Such an acceptance theory of authority is easily differentiated from power. Grimes notes: “What legitimizes authority is the promotion or pursuit of collective goals that are associated with group consensus. The polar opposite, power, is the pursuit of individual or particularistic goals associated with group compliance.”
     Influence is usually conceived of as being broader in scope than power. It involves the ability to alter other people in general ways, such as by changing their satisfaction and performance. Influence is more closely associated with leadership than power is, but both obviously are involved in the leadership process. Thus, authority is different from power because of its legitimacy and acceptance, and influence is broader than power, but it is so conceptually close that the two terms can be used interchangeably.
     The preceding discussion points out that an operational definition of power is lacking, and this vagueness is a major reason power has traditionally received relatively little attention in the study of organizational behavior. Yet, especially when it is linked to the emerging concern for the Informal Organization and organizational politics, the study of power can greatly enhance the understanding of the ways in which organizations function and the dynamics of organizational behavior. As one observer of the dynamics of the informal power network of organizations keenly noted:

Anyone who has ever worked knows that the org chart, no matter how meticulously rendered, doesn’t come close to describing the facts of office life. All those lines and boxes don’t tell you, for example, that smokers tend to have the best information, since they bond with people from every level and department when they head outside for a puff. The org chart doesn’t tell you that people go to Janice, a long-time middle manager, rather than their bosses to get projects through. It doesn’t tell you that the Canadian and Japanese sales forces don’t interact because the two points of contact can’t stand each other.


Most discussions of power often begin and sometimes even end with a review of the widely recognized five categories of the sources of social power identified many years ago by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven. Describing and analyzing these five classic Types of Power (reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert) serve as a necessary foundation and point of departure for the entire chapter. Most of the examples and applications to organizational behavior derive from the following five types of power.

Reward Power
This source of power is based on a person’s ability to control resources and reward others. In addition, the target of this power must value these rewards. In an organizational context, managers have many potential rewards, such as pay increases, promotions, valuable information, favorable work assignments, more responsibility, new equipment, praise, feedback, and recognition available to them. In operant learning terms, this means that the manager has the power to administer positive reinforcers. In expectancy motivation terms, this means that the person has the power to provide positive valences and that the other person perceives this ability.
    To understand this source of power more completely, one must remember that the recipient holds the key. If managers offer their people what they think are rewards (for example, a promotion with increased responsibility), but the people do not value them (for example, they are insecure or have family obligations that are more important to them than a promotion), then managers do not really have reward power. By the same token, managers may not think they are giving rewards to their people (they calmly listen to chronic complainers), but if they perceive this to be rewarding (the managers are giving them attention by intently listening to their complaining), the managers nevertheless have reward power. Also, managers may not really have the rewards to dispense (they may say that they have considerable influence with top management to get their people promoted, but actually they don’t), but as long as their people think they have it, they do indeed have reward power.

Coercive Power
This source of power depends on fear. The person with coercive power has the ability to inflict punishment or aversive consequences on another person or, at least, to make threats that the other person believes will result in punishment or undesirable outcomes. This form of power has contributed greatly to the negative connotation that power has for most people. In an organizational context, managers frequently have coercive power in that they can fire or demote people who work for them, or dock their pay, although the legal climate and unions have stripped away some of this power. A manager can also directly or indirectly threaten an employee with these punishing consequences. In operant learning terms, this means that the person has the power to administer punishment or negatively reinforce (terminate punishing consequences, which is a form of negative control). In expectancy motivation terms, this means that power comes from the expectation on the part of the other person that they will be punished for not conforming to the powerful person’s desires. For example, there is fear of punishment when the rules, directives, or policies of the organization are not carefully followed. It is probably this fear that gets most people to arrive at work on time and to look busy when the boss walks through the area. In other words, much of organizational behavior may be explained in terms of coercive power rather than reward power.

Legitimate Power
This power source, identified by French and Raven, stems from the internalized values of the other persons that give the legitimate right to the agent to influence them. The others feel they have the obligation to accept this power. It is almost identical to what is usually called authority and is closely aligned with both reward and coercive power because the person with legitimacy is also in a position to reward and punish. However, legitimate power is unlike reward and coercive power in that it does not depend on the relationships with others but rather on the position or role that the person holds. For example, people obtain legitimacy because of their titles (captain or executive vice president) or position (oldest in the family or officer of a corporation) rather than their personalities or how they affect others. A recent study found that CEOs are perceived to have more power when they also chair the board.
   Legitimate power comes from three major sources. First, the prevailing cultural values of a society, organization, or group determine what is legitimate. For example, in some societies, the older people become, the more legitimate power they possess. The same may be true for a certain physical attribute, gender, or job. In an organizational context, managers generally have legitimate power because employees believe in the value of private property laws and in the hierarchy where higher positions have been designated to have power over lower positions. The same holds true for certain functional positions in an organization. An example of the latter would be engineers who have legitimacy in the operations or information systems areas of a company, whereas accountants have legitimacy in financial matters. The prevailing values within a group also determine legitimacy. For Dynamics of Organizational Behavior example, in a street gang the toughest member may attain legitimacy, whereas in a work group the union steward may have legitimacy.
    Second, people can obtain legitimate power from the accepted social structure. In some Societies there is an accepted ruling class. But an organization or a family may also have an accepted social structure that gives legitimate power. For example, when blue-collar workers accept employment from a company, they are in effect accepting the hierarchical structure and granting legitimate power to their supervisors.
    A third source of legitimate power can come from being designated as the agent or representative of a powerful person or group. Elected officials, a chairperson of a committee, and members of the board of directors of a corporation or a union or management committee would be examples of this form of legitimate power.
     Each of these forms of legitimate power creates an obligation to accept and be influenced. But, in actual practice, there are often problems, confusion, or disagreement about the range or scope of this power. Consider the following:

An executive can rightfully expect a supervisor to work hard and diligently; may he also influence the supervisor to spy on rivals, spend weekends away from home, join an encounter group? A coach can rightfully expect [her] players to execute specific plays; may [she] also direct their life styles outside the sport? A combat officer can rightfully expect his men to attack on order; may he also direct them to execute civilians whom he claims are spies? A doctor can rightfully order a nurse to attend a patient or observe an autopsy; may he [or she] order [him or] her to assist in an abortion against [his or] her own will?

These gray areas point to the real concern that many people in contemporary society have regarding the erosion of traditional legitimacy. These uncertainties also point to the complex nature of power.

Referent Power
This type of power comes from the desire on the part of the other persons to identify with the agent wielding power. They want to identify with the powerful person, regardless of the outcomes. The others grant the person power because he or she is attractive and has desirable resources or personal characteristics.
     Advertisers take advantage of this type of power when they use celebrities, such as movie stars or sports figures, to provide testimonial advertising. The buying public identifies with (finds attractive) certain famous people and grants them power to tell them what product to buy. For example, a review of research has found that arguments, especially emotional ones, are more influential when they come from beautiful people.
    Timing is an interesting aspect of the testimonial advertising type of referent power. Only professional athletes who are in season (for example, baseball players in the summer and early fall, football players in the fall and early winter, and basketball players in the winter and early spring) are used in the advertisements, because then they are very visible, they are in the forefront of the public’s awareness, and consequently they have referent power. Out of season the athlete is forgotten and has little referent power. Exceptions, of course, are the handful of superstars (for example, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods) who transcend seasons and have referent power all year long and even after they have long ago retired.
     In an organizational setting, referent power is much different from the other types of power discussed so far. For example, managers with referent power must be attractive to their people so that they will want to identify with them, regardless of whether the managers later have the ability to reward or punish or whether they have legitimacy. In other words, the manager who depends on referent power must be personally attractive to subordinates.

Expert power
The last source of power identified by French and Raven is based on the extent to which others attribute knowledge and expertise to the power holder. Experts are perceived to have knowledge or understanding only in certain well-defined areas. All the Sources of Power depend on an individual’s perceptions, but expert power may be even more dependent on this than the others. In particular, the target must perceive the agent to be credible, trustworthy, and relevant before expert power is granted.
    Credibility comes from having the right credentials; that is, the person must really know what he or she is talking about and be able to show tangible evidence of this knowledge. There is basic research indicating the significant positive impact that credibility has on perceived power and there is much evidence from everyday experience. For example, if a highly successful football coach gives an aspiring young player some advice on how to do a new block, he will be closely listened to—he will be granted expert power. The coach has expert power in this case because he is so knowledgeable about football. His evidence for this credibility is the fact that he is a former star player and has coached championship teams. If this coach tried to give advice on how to play basketball or how to manage a corporation, he would have questionable credibility and thus would have little or no expert power. For avid sports fans or players, however, a coach might have general referent power (that is, he is very attractive to them), and they would be influenced by what he has to say on any subject—basketball or corporate management. For example, successful coaches such as basketball’s Pat Riley and Rick Pitino have written best-selling books aimed at effective business management.
    In organizations, staff specialists have expert power in their functional areas but not outside them. For example, engineers are granted expert power in technical matters but not in personnel or public relations problems. The same holds true for other staff experts, such as computer experts or accountants. For example, the computer person in a small office may be the only one who really understands the newest software and how to use it, and this knowledge gives him or her considerable power.
   As already implied, however, expert power is highly selective, and, besides credibility, the agent must also have trustworthiness and relevance. By trustworthiness, it is meant that the person seeking expert power must have a reputation for being honest and straightforward. In the case of political figures, scandals could undermine their expert power in the eyes of the voting public. The same could be said of recent years of the world of business. As noted by one devil’s advocate for the blind belief in the value of trust in our business leaders:

As September 11 and the collapse of Enron have reminded us, we have long operated under the illusion that we live and work over safety nets, not realizing—or even questioning—how flimsy those nets really are. Such high levels of trust have made us less vigilant and thus less able to protect ourselves.

The same could be said of course of the more recent fallout of the financial crisis. Wall Street bankers have lost a lot of expert power for the foreseeable future. In addition to credibility and trustworthiness, a person must have relevance and usefulness to have expert power. Going back to the earlier example, if the football coach gave advice on world affairs, it would be neither relevant nor useful, and therefore the coach would not have expert power in this domain.
    It is evident that expertise is the most tenuous type of power, but managers and especially staff specialists, who seldom have the other sources of power available to them, often have to depend on their expertise as their only source of power. As organizations become increasingly technologically complex and specialized, the expert power of the organization members at all levels may become more and more important. This is formally recognized by some companies that deliberately include lower-level staff members with expert power in top-level decision making. For example, Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, has stated: “In general, the faster the change in the know-how on which a business depends, the greater the divergence between knowledge and position power is likely to be. Since our business depends on what it knows to survive, we mix ‘knowledge-power people’ with ‘position-power people’ daily, so that together they make the decisions that will affect us for years to come.”
    It must also be remembered that French and Raven did recognize that there may be other sources of power. For instance, some organizational sociologists recognize the source of power of task interdependence (where two or more organizational participants must depend on one another). An example would be an executive who has legitimate power over a supervisor, but because the executive must depend on the supervisor to get the job done correctly and on time, the supervisor also has power over the executive. There is research evidence that those in such an interdependent relationship with their boss receive better pay raises and even that such interdependence can enhance the quality of the professorstudent relationship. 

     Closely related to interdependence is the use of information as a source of power. A person who controls the flow of information and/or interprets data before it is presented to others has such information power. Information power is distinguished from expert power because the individual merely needs to be in the “right place” to affect the flow and/or distribution of information, rather than having some form of expertise over the generation or interpretation of the information.
    Besides recognizing that there may be additional sources of power, French and Raven also point out that the sources are interrelated (for example, the use of coercive power by managers may reduce their referent power, and there is research evidence that high coercive and reward power may lead to reduced expert power), and the same person may exercise different types of power under different circumstances and at different times.
    Research indicates that French and Raven’s five bases of power may be summed to develop a measure of global power. This more global measure was found to be internally consistent and significantly related to each of the five individual power bases. It also accounted for additional variance in studies of the relationship between power and other variables such as resistance, compliance, and control. Additional research has found the role that procedural justice may play in the bases of power. One study indicates that although the bases of power are related to effective work reactions, they are also mediated by perceptions of procedure justice. This means employees are inclined to form evaluative perceptions regarding the fairness of actions exhibited by power holders and respond accordingly. Specifically, when the actions seem fair or justifiable, employees respond more favorably to the power influences being used by their supervisors. These findings and the discussion of the impact of the situation and time lead to the contingency models of power in organizations.


As in other areas of organizational behavior and management, contingency approaches to power have emerged. For example, Pfeffer simply says that power comes from being in the “right” place. He describes the right place or position in the organization as one where the manager has:

1. Control over resources such as budgets, physical facilities, and positions that can be used to cultivate allies and supporters

2. Control over or extensive access to information—about the organization’s activities, about the preferences and judgments of others, about what is going on, and about who is doing it

3. Formal authority

There is some research support for such insightful observations, and there are also research findings that lead to contingency conclusions such as the following:

1. The greater the professional orientation of group members, the greater relative strength referent power has in influencing them.

2. The less effort and interest high-ranking participants are willing to allocate to a task, the more likely lower-ranking participants are to obtain power relevant to this task.
    Besides these overall contingency observations, there is increasing recognition of the moderating impact of the control of strategic contingencies such as organizational interdependence and the extent to which a department controls critical operations of other departments or the role of influence behaviors in the perception of power. Also, the characteristics of influence targets (that is, their influenceability) have an important moderating impact on the types of power that can be successfully used.

Influenceability of the Targets of Power
Most discussions of power imply a unilateral process of influence from the agent to the target. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that power involves a reciprocal relationship between the agent and the target, which is in accordance with the overall social cognitive perspective taken in this text. The power relationship can be better understood by examining some of the characteristics of the target. The following characteristics have been identified as being especially important to the influenceability of targets:

1. Dependency. The greater the targets’ dependency on their relationship to agents (for example, when a target cannot escape a relationship, perceives no alternatives, or values the agent’s rewards as unique), the more targets are influenced.

2. Uncertainty. Experiments have shown that the more uncertain people are about the appropriateness or correctness of a behavior, the more likely they are to be influenced to change that behavior.

3. Personality. There have been a number of research studies showing the relationship between personality characteristics and influenceability. Some of these findings are obvious (for example, people who cannot tolerate ambiguity or who are highly anxious are more susceptible to influence, and those with high needs for affiliation are more susceptible to group influence), but some are not (for example, both positive and negative relationships have been found between self-esteem and influenceability).

4. Intelligence. There is no simple relationship between intelligence and influenceability. For example, highly intelligent people may be more willing to listen, but, because they also tend to be held in high esteem, they also may be more resistant to influence.

5. Gender. Although traditionally it was generally thought that women were more likely to conform to influence attempts than men because of the way they were raised, there is now evidence that this is changing. As women’s and society’s views of the role of women are changing, there is less of a distinction of influenceability by gender.

6. Age. Social psychologists have generally concluded that susceptibility to influence increases in young children up to about the age of eight or nine and then decreases with age until adolescence, when it levels off.

7. Culture. Obviously, the cultural values of a society have a tremendous impact on the influenceability of its people. For example, some cultures, such as Western cultures, emphasize individuality, dissent, and diversity, which would tend to decrease influenceability, whereas others, such as many in Asia, emphasize cohesiveness, agreement, and uniformity, which would tend to promote influenceability. As the accompanying OB in Action: Taking as Long as It Takes indicates, controlling the agenda and time in foreign cultures may be used to gain power and influenceability.

These individual differences in targets greatly complicate the effective use of power and point up the need for contingency models.

An Overall Contingency Model for Power
Many other contingency variables in the power relationship besides the target could be inferred from the discussion of the various types of power, for example, credibility and surveillance. All these variables can be tied together and related to one another in an overall contingency model.
     The classic work on influence process, by noted social psychologist Herbert Kelman, can be used to structure an overall contingency model of power. The model in Figure 10.1 incorporates the French and Raven sources of power with Kelman’s sources of power, which in turn support three major processes of power.
    According to the model, the target will comply in order to gain a favorable reaction or avoid a punishing one from the agent. This is the process that most supervisors in work organizations must rely on. But in order for compliance to work, supervisors must be able to reward and punish (that is, have control over the means to their people’s ends) and keep an eye on them (that is, have surveillance over them).

   People will identify not in order to obtain a favorable reaction from the agent, as in compliance, but because it is self-satisfying to do so. But in order for the identification process to work, the agent must have referent power—be very attractive to the target—and be salient (prominent). For example, a research study by Kelman found that students were initially greatly influenced by a speech given by a very handsome star athlete; that is, they identified with him. However, when the students were checked several months after the speech, they were not influenced. The handsome athlete was no longer salient; that is, he was no longer in the forefront of their awareness, and his previous words at the later time had no influence. As discussed, except for the handful of superstars, athletes are soon forgotten and have no power over even their most avid fans. Once they have graduated or are out of season, they lose their salience and, thus, their power.
     Finally, people will internalize because of compatibility with their own value structure. But, as Figure 10.1 shows, in order for people to internalize, the agent must have expert or legitimate power (credibility) and, in addition, be relevant. Obviously, this process of power is most effective. Kelman, for example, found that internalized power had a lasting impact on the subjects in his studies.
     Researchers have had problems constructing ways to measure compliance, identification, and internalization. However, this model of power does have considerable relevance as to how and under what conditions supervisors and managers influence their people. Many must depend on compliance because they are not attractive or do not possess referent power for identification to work. Or they lack credibility or do not have expert or legitimate power for internalization to occur. Kelman’s research showed that internalization had the longest-lasting impact and, as shown in the model, does not need surveillance or salience. In other words, what is generally considered to be leadership is more associated with getting people not just to comply but also to identify with the leader and, even better, to internalize what the leader is trying to accomplish in the influence attempt. This internalization would be especially desirable in today’s highly autonomous, flat organizations with cultures of openness, empowerment, and trust.

The Two Faces of Power
Besides the sources and situational, or contingency, nature of power, there are also different types of power that can be identified. Well-known social psychologist David McClelland did considerable work on the impact of the motivational need for power (what he called n Pow). His studies indicated that there are two major types of power, one negative and one positive.

   As the introductory comments point out, over the years power has often had a negative connotation. The commonly used term “power-hungry” reflects this negative feeling about power. According to McClelland, power

is associated with heavy drinking, gambling, having more aggressive impulses, and collecting “prestige supplies” like a convertible. . . . People with this personalized power concern are more apt to speed, have accidents, and get into physical fights. If . . . possessed by political officeholders, especially in the sphere of international relations, the consequences would be ominous.

McClelland felt that this negative use of power is associated with personal power. People with this “face” of power are primarily looking out for themselves and how they can get ahead; they are very “I” oriented, as in “I should look good if this project is completed so I can get a raise and promotion out of it.” McClelland felt that this personal power is primitive and does indeed have negative consequences.
    The contrasting “other face” of power identified by McClelland is social power. It is characterized by a “concern for group goals, for finding those goals that will move people, for helping the group to formulate them, for taking some initiative in providing members of the group with the means of achieving such goals, and for giving group members the feeling of strength and competence they need to work hard for such goals.” In other words, social power types are very “we” oriented, as in “We are going to have the best unit in the company, and we will all reap the rewards.” Under this definition of social power, the manager may often be in a precarious position of walking a fine line between an exhibition of personal dominance and the more Socializing use of power. McClelland accumulated some empirical evidence that social power managers are quite effective. In some ways this role power may play in organizational effectiveness is in opposition to the more humanistic positions, which emphasize the importance of democratic values and participative decision making. There is also more recent empirical evidence that would counter McClelland’s view. One study found that those with a high need for power may suppress the flow of information, especially information that contradicts their preferred course of action, and thus have a negative impact on effective managerial decision making.
     The negative use of power can also show up in situations such as sexual harassment. Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature takes place when someone uses coercive power to threaten another with negative consequences if they do not submit to sexual advances. This is known as quid pro quo harassment. A hostile work environment (sexual jokes, leering, posters) is another inappropriate use of one’s power over another. In all such inappropriate circumstances, harassment is based on power being used to intimidate another, especially those in a subordinate formal position. However, regardless of some of the controversy surrounding power, it is clear that power is inevitable in today’s organizations. How the dynamics of power are used and what type of power is used can vitally affect human performance and organizational goals. OB in Action: Taking as Long as It Takes In recent years many American firms doing business internationally have found, to their chagrin, that their overseas hosts have been using the agenda to gain power over visiting dignitaries. Here is a story related by a business lawyer who recently returned from Japan. “I went to Japan to negotiate a Licensing agreement with a large company there. We had been in contact with these people for three months and during that time had hammered out a rough agreement regarding the specific terms of the contract. The president of the firm thought that it would be a good idea if I, the corporate attorney, went to Tokyo and negotiated some of the final points of the agreement before we signed. I arrived in Japan on a Sunday with the intention of leaving late Friday evening. When I got off the plane, my hosts were waiting for me. I was whisked through customs and comfortably ensconced in a plush limousine within 30 minutes. “The next day began with my host asking me for my return air ticket so his secretary could take care of confirming the flight. I was delighted to comply. We then spent the next four days doing all sorts of things—sightseeing, playing golf, fishing, dining at some of the finest restaurants in the city. You name it, we did it. By Thursday I was getting worried. We had not yet gotten around to talking about the licensing agreement. Then on Friday morning we had a big meeting. Most of the time was spent discussing the changes my hosts would like to see made in the agreement. Before I had a chance to talk, it was time for lunch. We finished eating around 4 P.M. This left me only four hours before I had to leave for the airport. During this time I worked to get them to understand the changes we wanted made in the agreement. Before I knew it, it was time to head for the airport. Halfway there my host pulled out a new contract. ‘Here are the changes we talked about,’ he said. ‘I have already signed for my company. All you have to do is sign for yours.’ Not wanting to come home empty-handed, I signed. It turned out that the contract was much more favorable to them than to us. In the process, I learned a lesson. Time is an important source of power. When you know the other person’s agenda, you have an idea of what the individual’s game plan must be and can work it to your advantage. Since this time, I have all my reservations and confirmations handled stateside. When my host asks me how long I will be staying, I have a stock answer, ‘As long as it takes.’

Figure 10.1


Empowerment assumes that employees are willing to accept responsibility and improve their daily work processes and relationships. A recent survey revealed that almost all U.S. workers do feel personally responsible and want to improve quality and performance. Many companies are now discovering that empowerment training can be extremely useful in showing employees how to participate more actively and make things happen. There is also empirical research evidence that where participation is part of an empowerment program, manufacturing performance improves, and managers perceive that they are indeed empowered.
   A good example comes from the chemical division of Georgia-Pacific, where a quality and environmental assurance supervisor and a plant operator who had received empowerment training began participating through sharing ideas for more effectively preparing test samples of a certain chemical. Once they finalized their ideas, they used their empowerment status to produce a demonstration video. After seeing the video, management asked the two employees to share the tape with quality assurance supervisors in other plants. In turn, the supervisor and operator encouraged these other employees to provide feedback on the video and to share their own ideas. As a result, a more efficient system of preparing test samples was developed companywide.
      At the same time, care must be given to the effects on other managers. For example, many middle managers find themselves in a dilemma of dealing with two cultures when empowerment strategies are enacted. The first tells them to “relinquish control” whereas another demands that they “maintain control.” These contrasting values create role conflicts that must be resolved in order for the program to succeed. Empowerment and participation have been found to work best when they open new avenues for action among all members of the organization and strengthen their resolve to go along with the new ideas. Some critics argue that power and empowerment are only evoked when there is consonance between the “poetic” and the “rhetoric” of an organization, which means that a person’s interpretative framework must account for every aspect of the program. Because there is a conflict between relinquishing and maintaining control, and the two demands must be resolved for the employee to feel empowered, care must be taken not to neutralize empowerment and render it impotent.

Innovation Implications
Empowerment encourages innovation because employees have the authority to try out new ideas and make decisions that result in new ways of doing things. For example, in one major consumer goods company, two engineers used their empowered status to design and test a new household product. After spending over $25,000 on the project, they realized that the product did not perform up to expectations. The design was faulty and performance was poor. The next day the president of the company sent for both of them. When they entered the executive office, they found they were guests of honor at a party. The president quickly explained that he appreciated all their efforts and even though they were not successful, he was sure they would be in the future. By encouraging their innovative efforts through empowerment, the president helped ensure that these two employees would continue to bring new ideas to the market. This climate for innovation is greatly facilitated by empowering employees.

Access to Information
When employees are given access to information as a vital part of their empowerment, their willingness to cooperate is enhanced. At firms such as General Mills, self-managed work teams are given any information they need to do their jobs and improve productivity. This includes information as far ranging as profit and loss statements, manufacturing processes, and purchasing procedures. In addition, if employees desire additional training, even if the training is peripheral to their main jobs, it is provided. As a result of this accessibility to information, work teams are able to manage and control operations more effectively than under the old hierarchical bureaucratic and secretive, only on a need-to-know basis, information. With “open-book” cultural values and Intranet technology, empowered employees have all the organization’s information (and knowledge) available to do their jobs as effectively as possible.

Accountability and Responsibility
Although employees are empowered to make decisions they believe will benefit the organization, they must also be held accountable and responsible for results. This accountability is not intended to punish mistakes or to generate immediate, short-term results. Instead, the intent is to ensure that the associates are giving their best efforts, working toward agreedupon goals, and behaving responsibly toward each other. When these behaviors are exhibited, management is able to continue empowering employees to proceed at their own pace and in their own ways. Empowering employees should raise the level of trust in the organization. Empowered employees feel that “we are in this thing together” and are almost compelled to act responsibly. Trust is a must in today’s open, empowered organizations that are in very competitive markets.


There are a number of ways that managers can implement empowerment. Two common approaches are: (1) kaizen and “just do it” principles (JDIT), and (2) Trust Building. The goal is to tie empowerment with an action-driven results approach. This approach is found at Cummins Engine. The company provides a five-day training program in which kaizen (a Japanese term that means “continuous improvement”) is combined with JDIT. The principles or operational guidelines used include: (1) discard conventional, fixed ideas about doing work; (2) think about how to do it rather than why it cannot be done; (3) start by questioning current practices; (4) begin to make improvements immediately, even if only 50 percent of them can be completed; and (5) correct mistakes immediately.
The first day of the Cummins empowerment training program begins with a discussion about what kaizen and JDIT principles mean. Participants learn about the need for teamwork and the use of group problem solving. The second day is spent applying these ideas to a work area where improvement is needed. Cross-functional JDIT teams of three to five people are sent to the work floor to observe, document, and evaluate work practices. The third day is used to implement ideas that were identified and evaluated on the work floor. The next day is spent evaluating the improvements that have been initiated and making any final changes so that the new way of doing the work is more efficient than the previous method. The final day of the program is devoted to making presentations of the results to an audience of managers, explaining the changes that were made, and showing the results that were obtained.
   Trust building is also vital. Violations of trust between employers and employees (sometimes called “organizational infidelity”) means the terms of the Psychological Contract that has been built have been ignored or have been broken. Once this occurs, perceptions of rewards and contributions are reevaluated, usually resulting in reduced effort and lower commitment to the company. 
   “Optimal trust” occurs when managers and employees reach an agreement where trust is counterbalanced with distrust, as there is always at least a degree of suspicion in organizational relationships. Reaching optimal levels of trust involves finding the point where distrust is low enough to not be disruptive and trust is strong enough to move forward with confidence. Distrust is a major disruption to any change, including empowerment. Even at the highest levels of the organization, distrust can negatively affect operations. Unless trust is restored, the effects linger for a long time. 
    Trust building matches the principles of empowerment. Professional and collaborative relationships can be built across functional and hierarchical lines when trust is present. This grants the ability to disseminate ideas and information quickly throughout the organization. A shared mind-set develops that encourages people to continually challenge old processes and take prudent risks in creating something new. This fosters the ability to form quality ad hoc teams that share knowledge and tackle problems.
    At the extreme, some organizations encourage silliness and fun to build trust. Matt Weinstein and Luke Barber are management consultants who help companies build better environments for empowerment using such unusual tactics as bringing champagne to work to celebrate an employee’s greatest failure, to get rid of the negative stigma. They have set up dance-in-the-hallway sessions, candy prizes, and dress-up days, where workers showed up in Elvis costumes, biker togs, and nun outfits to release stress. When work is fun, employees feel more relaxed and truly empowered.
    Although empowerment implementation programs widely vary, they are all based on careful evaluations of the benefits and drawbacks of the process and the degree to which the organization’s members are prepared to accept the ideas. The accompanying OB in Action: Empowerment and Trust indicates that today’s employees seem ready for, and even demand, a high degree of empowerment and trust. However, some organizations have found that high degrees of empowerment work extremely well whereas others have discovered that the organization operates most efficiently with less empowerment. To account for these differences, Bowen and Lawler have suggested that organizations first identify at which of four levels of empowerment they should operate: (1) very little involvement, as reflected by traditional production-line firms; (2) moderate involvement, as reflected by organizations that employ suggestion programs and quality circles; (3) fairly substantial involvement, as reflected in organizations where jobs are designed so that employees can employ a variety of skills and have a great deal of autonomy in carrying out those jobs; and (4) high involvement, as reflected by organizations in which personnel share information and work together to solve problems and complete tasks.
    In general, empowerment can be viewed as the sharing of social power in an organization. Individual employees share goals and combine efforts to reach those goals. This fosters creativity and a stronger stake in the organization’s outcomes and future.

OB in Action: Empowerment and Trust

If an organization wants to tap the full potential of their human resources and maintain their loyalty, how should people be managed? There are many answers to this question. For example, some researchers have noted that an ideal leader does things such as: develops and empowers people, shares authority, and encourages constructive challenge. Others, such as the wellknown leadership guru Warren Bennis, contend that leaders have to build trust, and this is a two-way street. Managers have to believe in their employees and employees have to feel that the boss will never let them down.
    Some insight into the question of how people should be managed may be found in a recent large interview study involving several hundred firms. Employees responded that their productivity and tenure with their employer was determined by how well they are treated by their boss. Forty percent of those who said they had poor bosses also reported that they would be willing to leave their company and take a job elsewhere if the opportunity arose. In contrast, of those who said their bosses were excellent, only 11 percent said they would be willing to leave.
     The lesson from these findings is clear. Being a tough manager may have worked well a decade ago when corporate America was being “lean and mean.” However, that era is now over. As one analyst put it, “The American workplace has evolved to a kinder, gentler state.” Additionally, recent survey data show that most workers rate having a caring boss as more important than either money or fringe benefits.
   In particular, employees report that they have strong loyalty to companies that help them develop their skills, provide them mentors, and adjust work schedules to meet their personal needs. Consider the case of Mary Morse, a software engineer at Autodesk, a computeraided design company in San Rafael, California. Her first manager guided her through a six-month internship, accommodating her college schedule, and providing time off during finals week. Her next boss asked her how much she wanted as a starting salary and paid her $5,000 above this amount. Then this boss’s supervisor approached Mary and asked if she could be her mentor. When Mary agreed, the supervisor had her write out a list of short-term and long-term objectives and then began working with her to ensure that these goals were met. Mary’s third boss spent time talking to her about her career ambitions, and when she indicated that she wanted to move from designing and writing computer code to becoming a software engineer, he recommended classes and gave her the time off to attend them. So when Mary was wooed by a competitive firm that, among other things, offered her options for 7,000 shares of stock at less than $1 a share, she turned them down. Looking back at her decision and the options that became worth over $1 million, Mary still feels she made the right decision to stay with her current employer. She is not alone.
   Recent research shows that people with poor bosses are four times more likely to leave their companies than are those with caring bosses. And that is why so many firms are now getting on the bandwagon. For example, Macy’s West, a division of Federated Department Stores in San Francisco, began a program of assigning mentors to new managers and telling all managers that up to 35 percent of their compensation would now be linked to how well they retained the people under them. And at the International Paper plant in Moss Point, Mississippi, there are morning training sessions on positive reinforcement that are designed to change the way many supervisors manage by making these individuals friendlier and more approachable. The reason for these developments was best summed up by one of Mary Morse’s managers at Autodesk, who said, “Job satisfaction and being challenged means as much to me as the money part of it—just so long as I feel rewarded.” Simply put, a kind, caring approach can go a long way in motivating people.


The classical organization theorists portrayed organizations as highly rational structures in which authority meticulously followed the Chain of Command and in which managers had legitimatized power. The discussion on informal managerial roles and organization portrays another, more realistic view of organizations. It is in this more realistic view of organizations that the importance of the political aspects of power and strategic advantage comes to the forefront. As Pfeffer notes: “Organizations, particularly large ones, are like governments in that they are fundamentally political entities. To understand them, one needs to understand organizational politics, just as to understand governments, one needs to understand governmental politics.”
     The political perspective of organizations departs from the rational, idealistic model. For example, Walter Nord dispels some of the dreams of ideal, rationally structured, and humanistic organizations by pointing out some of the stark realities of political power. He suggests four postulates of power in organizations that help focus on the political realities:

1. Organizations are composed of coalitions that compete with one another for resources, energy, and influence.
2. Various coalitions will seek to protect their interests and positions of influence.
3. The unequal distribution of power itself has dehumanizing effects.
4. The exercise of power within organizations is one very crucial aspect of the exercise of power within the larger social system.

    In other words, the political power game is changing, but is still very real in today’s organizations. Researchers on organizational politics conclude that

politics in organizations is simply a fact of life. Personal experience, hunches, and anecdotal evidence for years have supported a general belief that behavior in and of organizations is often political in nature. More recently, some conceptual and empirical research has added further support to these notions.

Even though the organizational politics has and will continue to flourish, its nature and how it is expressed changes over time. For example, younger workers often disdain the “Boomer” form of politics as “so last century.” However, as an expert on organizational politics warns the young generation:

By shunning the conventions of office politics, they risk burning bridges. So because you never know how long you’ll be at a firm, I’d still advise sticking to the same old directives. They’re the same today as they were two decades ago.

    Like other aspects of organizational behavior dynamics, politics is not a simple process. Besides the age of the participants, politics can vary from organization to organization and even from one subunit of an organization to another. A comprehensive definition drawing from the literature is that “organizational politics consists of intentional acts of influence undertaken by individuals or groups to enhance or protect their self-interest when conflicting courses of action are possible.” There is also a more recent view that different forms of power in organizations are connected to specific Learning Process that help explain why some political insights become institutionalized and others do not. The political behavior of organizational participants tends to be traditionally viewed as opportunistic for the purpose of maximizing self-interest, but a counterargument is that organizational politics is actually the cornerstone of organizational democracy. As one theoretical analysis noted:

politics is central to the development of real organizational democracy. It provides practical advice on how to work with a constructive political “mindset” and highlights how such behavior underpins, rather than undermines, the process of redistributing organizational influence.

Thus, like other dynamics of today’s organizations, the nature of politics is quite complex and still being studied for better understanding.
       Research on organizational politics has identified several areas that are particularly relevant to the degree to which organizations are political rather than rational. These areas can be summarized as follows:

1. Resources. There is a direct relationship between the amount of politics and how critical and scarce the resources are. Also, politics will be encouraged when there is an infusion of new, “unclaimed” resources.

2. Decisions. Ambiguous decisions, decisions on which there is lack of agreement, and uncertain, long-range strategic decisions lead to more politics than routine decisions.

3. Goals. The more ambiguous and complex the goals become, the more politics there will be.

4. Technology and external environment. In general, the more complex the internal technology of the organization, the more politics there will be. The same is true of organizations operating in turbulent external environments.

5. Change. A reorganization or a planned organization development (OD) effort or even an unplanned change brought about by external forces will encourage political maneuvering.

    The preceding implies that some organizations and subunits within the organization will be more political than others. By the same token, however, it is clear that most of today’s organizations meet these requirements for being highly political. That is, they have limited resources; make ambiguous, uncertain decisions; have unclear yet complex goals; have increasingly complex technology; and are undergoing drastic change. This existing situation facing organizations makes them more political, and the power game becomes increasingly important. Miles states: “In short, conditions that threaten the status of the powerful or encourage the efforts of those wishing to increase their power base will stimulate the intensity of organizational politics and increase the proportion of decision-making behaviors that can be classified as political as opposed to rational.” For example, with the political situation of today’s high-tech, radically innovative firms, it has been suggested that medieval structures of palace favorites, liege lordship, and fiefdoms may be more relevant than the more familiar rational structures. Recent theory-building does recognize the reality of territoriality in organizations. “Organization members can and do become territorial over physical space, ideas, roles, relationships, and other potential possessions in organizations.” As the accompanying OB in Action: You Are Where You Sit indicates, even where one sits at the table of a meeting indicates power and political maneuvering.

OB in Action: You Are Where You Sit

How to Decode the Psychology of the Morning Meeting

The client was a senior female executive at a major global company. She was hardworking, bright, and wellliked, but she had one big frustration: People often ignored her ideas at meetings.
    After watching the woman interact with colleagues, executive consultant Constance Dierickx offered several suggestions. One of the most important: “I told her to stop sitting against the wall and sit around the table instead.” Within six months, coworkers were commenting that she had more “executive presence and spoke with greater conviction,” says Dierickx.
     The moral of the story: Where you sit influences where you stand. If you take away their Brooks Brothers suits, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and BlackBerrys, managers are little more than naked apes—social mammals with primal methods of expressing group power hierarchies. Over the past few years, psychologists and consultants have begun to decode the secret meaning of office behavior and to understand one of the business world’s deepest mysteries: Why do people tend to sit in the same place at routine meetings?
      Blame it on the boss. The person with the most power determines how everybody else positions themselves around the typical rectangular or oblong office table. As a rule, leaders like to sit at the end of the table facing the exit so no one can sneak up on them.
    From there on, things get quite complicated, according to Sharon Livingston, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Livingston Group, a marketing consultancy. Livingston has met with more than 40,000 people in her career at dozens of large companies and has found that people fit into one of seven personality types based on where they sit, which she explains using the nomenclature borrowed from Snow White’s seven dwarves. Those sitting opposite the person leading the meeting tend to be Grumpy or Doc, or a combination of the two, says Livingston. Grumpy is openly argumentative and may be hard to control. Doc is the person who faces off against the leader to show off his or her intelligence.
      The person who sits on the leader’s right is Happy— a yes-man. In her Web-based questionnaire that quickly determines one’s dwarf personality, 59% of the 20,000 people who have taken the test fall in the Happy category. “We’ve been trained in American society to be helpful and support the leader,” says Livingston.

With an understanding of the psychology of office seating, managers can move people around to improve their chances of influencing them. Managers should, for instance, place potential foes on their right. Suspected brownnosers may offer more frank opinions if they are on the opposite sides of a table.
      On the other hand, there’s something to be said for ignoring the issue entirely. Some experts, such as leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni, believe that if too many people are worried about where they’re sitting it signals a dysfunctional group. “If there’s a strong insecurity, people are more aware of all the trappings like, What am I wearing? Where do I sit? When a team is functional and has a high amount of trust, you worry less about those details.”

The Boss Leaders usually position themselves at the head of a table with their backs to a wall or corner. They like to face the door so they can see newcomers a few seconds ahead of everyone else.

Left-Hand Manager A complex position. This person’s proximity to power signals support but he or she is likely to be a “yes, but” character. This player agrees in broad principle, then slips in an opposing view.

Right-Hand Manager The person who sits to the right of the boss tends to say yes to nearly everything the leader suggests. This manager tends to be focused on the boss instead of materials and others in the room.

The Middleman People who sit in the middle of long tables can easily maintain eye contact with most of the others at the table. They are often extroverts and may mediate between those at either side.

The Sideliner The person who sits at the corner of the table is often trying to hide in the crowd. He frequently leans back in his chair. He waits to hear others’ views before expressing his own. .

The Opponent Someone who sits directly opposite the leader is typically argumentative, often sitting with arms crossed. This type frequently asks rhetorical questions or finds other ways to announce his or her expertise.

The Outsider This person sits away from the group sitting at the table. This can signal that she maintains a “bigger-picture” perspective. Or perhaps she was just too late to get a seat.


Once it is understood and accepted that contemporary organizations are in reality largely political systems, some very specific strategies can be identified to help organization members more effectively acquire power. For example, one research study found that a supervisorfocused political strategy resulted in higher levels of career success, whereas a job-focused political strategy resulted in lower levels of success. Another taxonomy of Political Strategies included the following:

1. Information strategy—targets political decision makers by providing information through lobbying or supplying position papers or technical reports

2. Financial incentive strategy—targets political decision makers by providing financial incentives such as honoraria for speaking or paid travel

3. Constituency building strategy—targets political decision makers indirectly through constituent support such as grassroots mobilization of employees, suppliers, customers, or public relations/press conferences

     Over the years, various political strategies for gaining power in organizations have been suggested. Table 10.1 gives a representative summary of these strategies. Research is also being done on political tactics. For example, Yukl and Falbe derived eight political, or influence, tactics that are commonly found in today’s organizations. These tactics are identified in Table 10.2. Yukl and his colleagues found that the consultation and rational persuasion tactics were used most frequently and along with inspirational appeal were most effective. Some modern organization theorists take more analytical approaches than most of the strategies suggested in Table 10.1 and Table 10.2, and they depend more on concepts such as uncertainty in their political strategies for power. For example, Pfeffer’s strategies include managing uncertainty, controlling resources, and building alliances. Others take a more pragmatic approach, such as the analysis that suggests that successful political behavior involves keeping people happy, cultivating contacts, and wheeling and dealing. Law Professor Theresa Beiner coined the term “reindeer games” (from the song “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) to describe, like in the song, social activities that provide some, but not all, employees with opportunities to interact with other organization members, which helps build an individual’s power base. For example, a boss who invites three male subordinates to play a round of golf and does not include a female subordinate is engaged in a reindeer game that could be considered discriminatory in terms of gaining access to the inner circle of power and influence.
    One of the more comprehensive and relevant lists of strategies for modern managers comes from DuBrin. A closer look at a sampling of his and other suggested strategies provides important insights into power and politics in modern organizations.

Maintain Alliances with Powerful People
As has already been pointed out, the formation of coalitions (alliances) is critical to the acquisition of power in an organization. An obvious coalition would be with members of other important departments or with members of upper-level management. Not so obvious but equally important would be the formation of an alliance with the boss’s secretary or staff assistant, that is, someone who is close to the powerful person. An ethnographic study of a city bus company found that a series of dyadic alliances went beyond the formal system and played an important role in getting the work done both within and between departments. For example, alliances between supervisors and certain drivers got the buses out on the worst winter snow days and kept them running during summer vacation periods when drivers were sparse.

Embrace or Demolish
Machiavellian principles can be applied as strategies in the power game in modern organizations. One management writer has applied these principles to modern corporate life. For example, for corporate takeovers, he draws on Machiavelli to give the following advice:

The guiding principle is that senior managers in taken-over firms should either be warmly welcomed and encouraged or sacked; because if they are sacked they are powerless, whereas if they are simply downgraded they will remain united and resentful and determined to get their own back.

Divide and Rule
This widely known political and military strategy can also apply to the acquisition of power in a modern organization. The assumption, sometimes unwarranted, is that those who are divided will not form coalitions themselves. For example, in a business firm the head of finance may generate conflict between marketing and operations in hopes of getting a bigger share of the limited budget from the president of the company.

Manipulate Classified Information
The observational studies of managerial work have clearly demonstrated the importance of obtaining and disseminating information. The politically astute organization member carefully controls this information in order to gain power. For example, the CIO (chief information officer) may reveal some new pricing information to the design engineer before an important meeting. Now the CIO has gained some power because the engineer owes the CIO a favor. In the Information Age, the amount of information being generated is growing rapidly; how it is managed can provide power. Specifically, knowledge managers such as this CIO can become powerful in today’s firms.

Make a Quick Showing
This strategy involves looking good on some project or task right away in order to get the right people’s attention. Once this positive attention is gained, power is acquired to do other, usually more difficult and long-range, projects. For example, an important but often overlooked strategy of a manager trying to get acceptance of a knowledge management program is to show some quick, objective improvements in the quality of a product, service, or process.

Collect and Use IOUs
This strategy says that the power seeker should do other people favors but should make it clear that they owe something in return and will be expected to pay up when asked. The “Godfather” in the famous book and movie of that name and Tony Soprano of the recent HBO TV series very effectively used this strategy to gain power.

Avoid Decisive Engagement (Fabianism)
This is a strategy of going slow and easy—an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary approach to change. By not “ruffling feathers,” the power seeker can slowly but surely become entrenched and gain the cooperation and trust of others.

Attacking and Blaming Others
A political tactic some people try is to make others “look bad” in order to make themselves “look good.” Blaming and attacking deflects responsibility onto others. It is unethical and unacceptable, but is also a common practice in many organizations.

Progress One Step at a Time (Camel’s Head in the Tent)
This strategy involves taking one step at a time instead of trying to push a whole major project or reorganization attempt. One small change can be a foothold that the power seeker can use as a basis to get other, more major things accomplished.

Wait for a Crisis (Things Must Get Worse Before They Get Better)
This strategy uses the reverse of “no news is good news”; that is, bad news gets attention. For example, many deans in large universities can get the attention of central administration and the board of regents or trustees only when their college is in trouble, for instance, if their accreditation is threatened. Only under these crisis conditions can they get the necessary funding to move their college ahead.

Take Counsel with Caution This suggested political strategy is concerned more with how to keep power than with how to acquire it. Contrary to the traditional prescriptions concerning participative management and empowerment of employees, this suggests that at least some managers should avoid “opening up the gates” to their people in terms of shared decision making. The idea here is that allowing subordinates to participate and to have this expectation may erode the power of the manager.

Be Aware of Resource Dependence The most powerful subunits and individuals are those that contribute valuable resources. Controlling the resources other persons or departments need creates considerable bargaining power.
     All of these political tactics are part of the games and turf wars that take place in today’s organizations. On one level they are inevitable and cannot be prevented. On another, however, they are counterproductive and dysfunctional. They can impede participation and empowerment programs and cause people to waste time and resources. Consequently, many managers believe they must take steps to stop the game playing and turf wars through trust-building and goal-sharing programs. These efforts are especially warranted in a situation in which an organization is undergoing a crisis. Effective crisis management must, at some level, include social-political and technological-structural interventions, mainly aimed at disruptive dysfunctional political agendas of individuals, groups, and/or departments in order to resolve the crisis. Some knowledgeable observers have even suggested that managers would benefit from reading Shakespeare in order to understand the intrigues and intricacies of political tactics used in today’s organizations.

Table 10.1

Table 10.2