Managing the Power Game

Power game chess (0)We cannot avoid the influences and effect of power in daily life.  It is a dynamic, complicated byproduct of social interaction and constantly changes even in a single relationship between two people.

How often has the phrase “where do you want to eat?” come up and how often was that decision based on your desire to eat a favorite food versus your lack of interest in making a simple decision?

“I dunno, where do you want to eat?…”

Knowing that power games translate into office politics, leaders need to be able manage the powers to the benefit of the group.  A business cannot be “Lord of the Flies”.  It didn’t go well in the book, it won’t go well in the office.

Power defined

“Power is the capacity to influence another person or group to accept one’s own ideas or plans.”[1]

The key to understanding power is to understand the relationship of the power holder to the person over whom the power is used, called the A (power) – B (the influenced).  First, A must have some form of power.  But, in order for the power to be effective, B must recognize and accept the quality of A’s power. [2]

Sources of power (a review)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in a 1959 study by social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, power was divided into 5 forms (and, in 1965, into 6 forms):

  1. Coercion is A’s use of force to influence or change B’s behavior.
  2. Reward is A’s authority to reward B’s behavior.
  3. Legitimacy is also known as positional authority, the position of a person in an organization defines the legitimate power and the authority that is delegated to the person in the position.
  4. Expert power is associated with a person’s skills or specialized knowledge that gives better insight, understanding, and judgement.
  5. Referent is the ability to attract and hold loyal followers, an ability based on charisma, interpersonal skills, or an ideology that compels its followers.
  6. Informational is A’s control over B’s knowledge of critical or scarce information.

The power game

In business, power dynamics are more pronounced because of the formalized organization and the fiduciary responsibilities.  It is further complicated because power is often studied under game theory which implies competition which further implies winners and losers.  This framing generates an atmosphere of self-interest as the participants begin to game the system for their personal benefits.

The power game becomes what we normally call “office politics”.  We must establish a framework that mitigates power abuses and encourages the use of power for the benefit of the group.

Managing the Power Sources

You can’t manage the above listed power sources in the same way because they are each so fundamentally different.  It is like the safety features in an electrical system that protects the users from different threats: a fuse box prevents overloading, good insolation prevents shocks and shorts, and childproof socket protects inquisitive children with forks from themselves.

So, how can we canalize these power sources to the greater good and prevent abuse?

Coercion.  Outside of formalized authority or policy, coercion should never be tolerated.  What I mean by “formalized authority or policy” refers to administrative punishments or legal avenues in the event of bad behavior.

Coercion flourishes in secret.  To prevent unethical coercion, companies must first codify what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.  Make clear the legal and ethical boundaries.  Institute mechanisms that open up communication channels that prevent coercive leaders and coworkers from silencing concerns.  The complaints must be independently validated and investigated.

Possible systems:

  • Anonymous tip lines
  • Ombudsman
  • Open door policy
  • Formal complaint system
  • Peer and subordinate review programs

Reward. Rewards are tricky because they are usually subjective.  The power is not just the award authority, but power abusers are in position to maliciously deny the opportunity to be recognized for an award or promotion.  It is difficult to prove the intention behind a supervisor’s motivation.

The solution is to prevent or diminish the power accumulation and create a transparent process.  For example:

  • Peer nominated awards
  • Supervisor nominated awards (but not with aware authority)
  • Award committees (HR supervised award authority)
  • peer voted awards categories
  • Systemic review of intangible rewards (I details some ideas here and here)
  • Awards based on empirical merit

Legitimacy or positional authority. Insofar as power is a natural part of any organization, legitimacy is the foundation.

The true danger of power abuses is that they chip away at the authority and respect of the person in that authority.  When their behavior is perceived as unethical or unfair, they lose their power over subordinates.  The temptation is to compensate by relying on other power sources, but applied in a negative manner: overt coercion, withholding rewards, withholding information.

Expert. Experts are valuable resources.  They save time and have valuable insights that can add real value to a business.  The most common problem with experts is when we confuse their expertise in one area for transferable expertise in another area.

It is a common human logical bias to fall victim to the fallacy of an “appeal to authority”.  The fallacy is that people will attribute expertise to authority figures even when a topic is outside of the expert’s field.

A common example is Linus Pauling, a Noble Prize winner in Chemistry and the Noble Peace Prize.

Pauling claimed that mega-doses of vitamins would extend life in cancer patients and prevent colds.  But the problem is that Pauling is not a doctor, nutritionist, or a biochemist.  He had no expert knowledge in vitamin supplements.  His public comments were completely baseless and there is still no scientific evidence supporting his claims.  His premise has actually lead to other, more dangerous problems.  People have extended his premise further and applied it to the idea that mega-doses of other vitamins is a good strategy.  Some have ended up in the hospital with the toxicity problems.

His reputation, though in an unrelated field, was so persuasive that he is the primary reason that to this day the supplement industry packages vitamin C in massive quantities and our collective consciousness remembers it as a “common knowledge”.

I bring this up because the same fallacy has led many times to the wrong conclusion: An expert is an expert is an expert.  The skills and experience of leadership and management is as complicated as any other specialty.  The false equivalencies have caused disastrous results to businesses and careers.

My advice is that company policy needs to accommodate the professional development and career paths of expert staffers.  If they are to assume leadership roles, they need to move to leadership development tracks for training and gaining experience.  Promoting someone directly into a key executive role with only specialist experience is a recipe for chaos.

Referent.  Charisma is an amazing motivator and desirable in a leader.  It contributes hugely to the social component of leadership and it appeals to many psychological bias in the brain.  The negative and extreme example of referent power are cult leaders who use the strength of their personas to build a power base of followers.

Charisma is not, however, an essential trait.  Personal charisma is very compelling, but it cannot function in the absence of substance.  The lure is that the power of referent leaders is that they surround themselves with loyal followers which creates an in-group/ out-group schism which, in turn, forms an unhealthy organization culture.

The trap to avoid is forming a leadership cult of personality.  If personality strength becomes the metric, every level of management to the lowest level becomes an unrestrained fiefdom.

Informational.   The power of information cannot be understated.  The power is expressed in the control of releasing the information.  So, the simple solution is to create open channels of communications to everyone in the company such that word-of-mouth is not the only or primary conduit.

A word of caution… an open system does not mean an unsecure system.  There are privacy data and proprietary information that needs to be protected and not necessarily available to everyone.

A systemic approach

I offer two strategies for mitigating or eliminating power abuses: transparency and accountability.

Transparency.  Almost every example I can recall of a poor leader includes a strategy reducing information flow.  On the subtle side there are the micromanagers that insist that every communications and document comes over their desk for review or approval.  This is an attempt at control that sends a message of distrust and fear.  Distrust in the judgement of subordinates and fear of the discovery of an error of any kind.

Let me concede one point, I think everyone has a fair expectation of discretion.  People who gossip are detrimental to a healthy organization, but closed communications are worse in the long-term, miss synergistic opportunities, and create organizational bottlenecks.

Accountability.  I have found that people want responsibility and a reason to be proud of their work.  Give them a standard, check them, and hold them accountable for an outcome.  When poor leadership results in high employee turnover or multiple labor lawsuits, who is held accountable?

Sheriff Arpaio[3], an American police official in Arizona has accumulated over $50 million in legal fees paid by the County of Maricopa (his jurisdiction) for individual lawsuits, legal claims, and on corruption charges.  Yet, the people who elect him do not hold him responsible for this incredible cost in money and reputation.[4] [5]

Yes, I know, accountability is not doing well in this case.  But, he may well end up in jail or out of a job at the end of the corruption trail, in this case the legal system will hold him responsible.  The case does point to the importance of having leaders accountable for their actions and the actions of their subordinates.


We have to accept the fact that power is a part of the business landscape.  If you accept my fundamental premise that leadership is an ethical expression of power for group benefit, then we have to use power to the group’s advantage and mitigate the negative aspects of abuse.

By identifying the sources of power, we can strategically emphasize the positive and minimize the negative:

  • The most important strategy to minimize coercion, reward, and informational abuses is transparency. Shine a light in the dark to make sure those mushrooms aren’t growing.
  • Hold leaders accountable for bad leadership. A business isn’t “Lord of the Flies”. Bad leadership proliferates more bad leadership especially down the chain.
  • Expertise and charm (referent) are fantastic tools for a leader, but don’t fall into the logical fallacy of attributing one desirable trait to automatically transfer to leadership.
  • Make room in the organization for specialists.

I think the key point is this, as a proactive, engaged leader you have to except the existence of power dynamics in an organisation.  Like a teamster on an eight horse wagon, you have to gather the reins.  The power is really in the strength of the horses, but the teamster controls the reins and guides the combined power to move the wagon forward toward the end destination.


Kenneth Wrede


 [1] “Power and Organization Development”, Larry E. Greiner and Virginia Schein, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1988




[5] Ibid, Note: The difference between my numbers and the article is that the article mentions settlement fees and my number is the legal costs for the Maricopa County.












About Ken Wrede
Kenneth Wrede