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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Identifying five sources of power, June 23, 2006, 2D.

A quick word association game on the word “power” often brings forth such concepts as: manipulation, control, dominance, or subordination—words that have negative connotations in our society.  While power, in many cases, tends to be viewed negatively it is in reality neutral; it is neither good nor bad.  It is the way that power is used that determines whether it is viewed in a negative or positive light.

Electricity is similarly neither good nor bad.  Electricity can be used beneficially to power houses, offices, machinery, and tools that make people’s lives better.  However, electricity can also be used for harmful and destructive purposes.  Whether we view electricity as good or bad often comes from an evaluation of its use.

From an organizational perspective, power is the ability to influence.  Influence refers to change—if something has been influenced, it has been changed.  Power is needed by organizational leaders to make things happen.  It is important that organizational leaders understand various types of power and when the different types of power are most appropriate to use.

One of the most well known conceptualizations of social power was developed in the middle of the 20th century by researchers French and Raven.  They identified five bases, or sources, of power.  Expert power comes from perceptions of expertise or knowledge, referent power arises when one is admired and respected by followers, legitimate power emanates from the formal authority vested in one’s position within an organization, reward power comes from the ability to give rewards, and coercive power resides in the ability to administer threats and punishment. 

Further evaluation of French and Raven’s taxonomy reveals two actual sources of leader power—those vested in the person and those in the position.  Expert and referent powers are personal powers that are attributed to particular leaders by followers.  Legitimate, reward, and coercive powers come with the organizational positions that individuals occupy.  Organizational leaders should try to develop as much power as possible—both personal and positional.  While it may never have to be drawn on, it is good to have excess power in reserve should it ever be needed. 

Effective organizational leaders understand when to draw upon and use the various types of power that they possess.  When mere compliance and obedience is required, coercive powers might be sufficient.  Administering rewards for compliance might bring about a greater sense of follower willingness and commitment than coercive power when the rewards are viewed as desirable.  The best follower outcomes tend to arise with the use of the personal powers—expert and referent.  In such cases, compliance typically results as well as feelings of commitment, satisfaction, and internal reward.  However, trying to influence uninterested, unwilling, and unmotivated followers with personal powers will not yield optimal organizational and follower outcomes.  Using coercive power to bring about compliance from highly committed, willing, and involved followers will likewise result in suboptimal follower outcomes—maybe even including feelings of manipulation, control, dominance, and subordination.      

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved