They say absolute power corrupts absolutely…
French & Raven (1959) defined five different types of power. What follows is my take on their five:
- Positional Power – the one with the most stripes wins
- Referent Power – the power of some people to draw others to them (to me most akin to charisma)
- Expert Power – the one who knows how to work it has power (see also I.T. people)
- Reward Power – the one with the carrot has the power
- Coercive Power – the one with the stick has the power
What’s interesting, to me at least, is that you see these forms of power play out in day to day life from a very early age. Think of the school playground, the cool kid, the one who’s good at football, I would say the one with the best toy but now it’s probably the one with the best phone/gadget. As adults it’s part of work, friendship and relationships and if you stop and pay attention you will see people exercising different forms of power with varying degrees of success all the time.
Power is absolutely part of our lives and I think it was Uncle Ben (in Spiderman, not the one on the rice packet) who said “with great power comes great responsibility”…
One of the companies I worked for had a very charismatic CEO who despite having ‘all the chips’ in terms of positional power, lead far more based on his referent power. For the sake of ease let’s call him Robert (great name BTW). One of the other directors was fond of saying in meetings “I don’t want to have to remind you I am a director of this business” which was usually met with obedient faux nodding and at least one mutter of “Robert never has to remind us”. What always amazed me about the CEO was his ability even when kicking the crap out of me was a) to seem respectful to me as a person and b) to leave me motivated to solve the problem
It seems to me (and there is no science in this) that there is a defined link between self confidence/security and the use or misuse of power i.e. those who are confident in context (whether that be as an employee, friend or partner) are the ones who exercise it best. This begs the question was the Director of my former employer merely underdeveloped in referent power so had to rely on positional power OR insecure enough that he felt the need to assert that positional power OR both? (*head spins)
In reflecting on myself (as I am prone to do from time to time) I realise that like everyone else, I have good days and bad days. If I were to sit with a pad and some time I would imagine I could come up with a list of where me exercising power has had a positive effect on others whether that be in support, challenge, motivation, inspiration (or perspiration) etc and conversely (whether through good or bad intention) I have had a negative effect.
Alexander Pope said “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing” so to close what feels like a rather rambling post, hopefully the knowledge shared here (safely thank you Mr Pope) has a similar impact for you as it did for me with respect to power – turning unconscious incompetence into conscious incompetence (and you never know one day we could all be competent, or maybe you already are!)
French, J.R.P., & Raven, B. (1959). ‘The bases of social power,’ in D. Cartwright (ed.) Studies in Social Power.