Power can be defined as the ability to get someone to do something you want done or the ability to make things happen in the way you want them to. The essence of power is having control over the behaviour of others. Managers use power to achieve influence over other people in the organization or business. Managers can have power ascribed to them either through organizational or individual sources. They can thus have position power and personal power. Both position power and personal power can be divided further into bases of power. Position power includes reward power, coercive power and legitimate power, whereas personal power includes expert power and referent power. Let us examine these power bases a bit closer.
Reward power is the extent to which a manager can use extrinsic or intrinsic rewards to control workers. Examples of such rewards include money, promotions, compliments or job enrichment. All managers have some access to such rewards but utilizing rewards to achieve influence varies according to the skills of the manager.
Power can also be founded on punishment instead of reward, for instance, by withholding a pay raise, transfer, demote or even firing somebody. Coercive power is the extent to which a manager can deny desired rewards or administer punishment to control workers. The availability of coercive power varies from one organization and manager to the other. The presence of unions and organizational policies on employee treatment can weaken this power base considerably.
Legitimate power or formal authority is the third base of position power. It stems from the extent to which a manager can use workers’ internalized values or beliefs that the boss has a right of command to control their behaviour. For example, legitimate power allows a manager to approve or deny such employees requests for transfer, equipment purchase, personal time off, or overtime work, etc.
In practice it is difficult to separate formal authority from the use of reward and coercive power. This is because persons with authority usually have special access to rewards and punishments and can thereby alter their availability to workers.
Personal power resides in the individual and is independent of the position the individual holds. Two bases of personal power are expertise and reference.
Expert power is the ability to control another person’s behaviour through the possession of knowledge, experience, or judgement that the other person does not have but needs. For example, a subordinate would obey a supervisor because (s)he is felt to know more about what is to be done or how it is to be done than does the subordinate. Similarly, a patient would typically listen to the doctor’s recommendation because the doctor knows more about medicine than the patient. Access to or control over information is an important element in this particular power base. Access to key decision makers is another. A person’s ability to contact key persons informally can allow for special participation in defining problems or issues, change in the flow of information to decision makers and lobbying for use of special criteria in decision making.
Referent power is the ability to control another’s behaviour because that person wants to identify with the power source. In this case, a subordinate would obey the boss because (s)he wants to behave, perceive, or believe as the boss does. This may happen, for example, because the subordinate likes the boss personally and therefore tries to do things the way the boss wants them done. In a sense, the subordinate behaves in order to avoid doing anything that would interfere with the pleasing boss-subordinate relationship.
So, power is the potential to control the behaviour of others and formal authority is the potential to exert such control through the legitimacy of a managerial position. Yet, we also know that people who seem to have power do not always get their way. Which leads to the subject of obedience. Why do some people obey directives, while others do not? More specifically, why should subordinates respond to a managers’ authority or “right to command,” in the first place? And what determines the limits of obedience?
Chester Barnard argues that subordinates will accept or follow a directive from the boss only under special circumstances, all four of which must be met:
- The subordinate can and must understand the directive;
- The subordinate must feel mentally and physically capable of carrying out the directive;
- The subordinate must believe that the directive is consistent with the purpose of the organization; and
- The subordinate must believe that the directive is consistent with his or her personal interests.
The effective manager will thus, in giving orders, recognize that the acceptance of a request is not assured and will try and need to understand with is considered acceptable or unacceptable.
Using the above as a framework we will try and see over the next few weeks how the issues related to power in the Ethiopian context of doing business.