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What is power and how does it affect workplace dynamics?

October 5, 2021 - 21 min read

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What is power?

The types of power you should know

4 theories of power

How to use power

Power in the workplace

What is power? Your secret weapon

Power. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot. One that has a lot of, well, power.

But what is power? And what does it mean to have power?

When I watch a world-class athlete like Allyson Felix run, I see power. When I listen to her tell her story about raising awareness to secure salary protections for pregnant athletes, I see a different kind of power.

Every relationship has power dynamics, even if we aren't fully aware of them. Because of this, power comes into play in our everyday lives. Your manager at work might have power over you professionally. A friend might have a different type of power over you in your personal life.

But with great power comes great responsibility. It’s important to understand where different power comes from in order to create change within your sphere of influence.

Here’s everything you need to know about the concept of power, from different theories on power to how to use it correctly.

What is power?

The definition of power is the capacity to make others act a certain way or believe in something.

Power is the capacity to make others act  or believe in a certain way.

The term ‘power’ is often used interchangeably with synonyms authority and influence. But they are all different in several ways.

Authority entails power, but it has more legitimacy. It is given through delegation or officially bestowed upon a person.

Influence is the ability to change how someone else thinks or behaves based on persuasion. Unlike power, with influence, you can’t impact someone’s actions or behavior just by telling them to do something.

If you hold actual power over someone, you can demand they do certain things or act a specific way.

manager-delegating-to-employee-what-is-power

Power can be exerted either upward or downward. A direct report could use their power over their superiors. Or superiors could exert power over their employees.

Many company hierarchies exert downward power. This is to encourage direct reports or subordinates to achieve specific organizational goals and objectives.

With upward power, it’s the subordinates who influence the decisions of their managers, supervisors, and leaders.

What does it mean to have power?

Power can be viewed as both a positive and negative trait, depending on the way it is used.

People that wield power could be viewed as unjust or corrupt when they use their personal power to achieve unscrupulous goals. Or when exhibiting nepotism or manipulating those that report to them.

inclusive-leadership-report-cta

The types of power you should know 

There are seven main types of power, first described by renowned psychologists Bertram Raven and John French. These types of power were later elaborated upon in psychologist Nicole Lipkin’s book, ‘What Keeps Leaders Up at Night.’

All types of power can be classified as either positional power or personal power.

Positional power

Positional power is awarded to a person because of their rank or title in an organization.  You acquire this type of power because of the position you occupy within the organizational structure or hierarchy.

Because it is based on external factors, positional power can be taken away.

Let’s look at the three types of positional power more closely, including legitimate, reward, and coercive power.

1. Legitimate power

People with legitimate power have earned that power through honest, transparent means. In the workplace, you receive power based on your position in your organization. It is given by showing that you have the right skills for the role.

female-leader-listening-to-colleague-what-is-power

Employees in this type of power environment are free to question why certain people have been placed in roles of power. Legitimate power can also be taken away.

2. Reward power

This form of power centers on influencing the system. It can be used positively to recognize hard workers and provide what they have rightfully earned.

Within a work environment, reward power focuses on the ability of power to impact salary increases, promotions, bonuses, benefits, privileges, and titles.

If exercised poorly, reward power can also corrupt a system. It can concentrate rewards in the hands of loyalists, favorites, and superiors.

3. Coercive power

Dictatorships are prime examples of the exercise of coercive power. This form of power uses threats, force, and intimidation. It can wreak disruption across an organization.

Its effects include low employee retention rates and morale.

It can also create recruitment challenges and promote hostility within the workplace.

Personal power

Personal power is given to an individual because of recognition from their followers. It is based on a leader’s personal characteristics, skills, and competencies.

Because of its internal nature, personal power cannot be taken away. However, it can be lost.

Let’s look at the different types of personal power, including referent, expert, informational, and connection power.

4. Referent power

Referent power is the ability to influence others based on admiration, respect, or identification. This power comes from a person's perceived attractiveness and worthiness. This type of power is not formal and must be earned.

In the workplace, a person with referent power often has strong interpersonal skills and makes others feel good. Because of this, leaders with referent power have a lot of influence.

An excellent example of referent power is celebrities. They have a huge following of people whose behavior they can influence.

5. Expert power

Expert power comes from your level of education, experience, or talent.

Your experience and education may grant you a certain authority in the workplace. Your expertise gives you credibility, and people trust and respect your opinions.

6. Informational power

Informational power is when a person has information that others want or need. This form of power is usually short-term.

For example, a project manager might be the only person in their organization who understands the needs of a project.

They may also have high-level confidential information that, if disclosed, could damage the organization. This power can be important to a company’s success. Or it could threaten its very existence if placed in the wrong hands.

7. Connection power

This type of power comes from having an association or relationship with a powerful person.

Many people are acquainted with others who know important information and have access to crucial resources. This is because they have connections to people in high places.

When used properly, connection power can benefit employees and their teams. You can gain this form of power through honest means like professional networking.

It carries risks, too, such as unhealthy competition and jealousy between colleagues. For example, an employee could hold connection power based on their close relationship to their boss. Other employees may feel envious of their connection power and find the dynamic unfair.

4 theories of power

There are many theories on power developed by political sociologists. Each of them offers a different view on the distribution and exercise of power in modern societies.

Let’s take a look at four of the popular theories of power.

1. Class theory of power

The class theory of power is usually associated with Marxism and its founding father, Karl Marx. It asserts that every society consists of two classes: the rich (or ‘haves’) and the poor (or ‘have nots’).

The rich own the means of production and dominate the economy. The poor are economically, politically, and socially exploited by the rich.

In this theory, the rich are the dominant class who use power to maintain this dominance over society. They exploit and suppress the poor, using the state as an instrument to maintain their status.

According to Marxism, in every state of social evolution, the rich have used their power to control society. The class theory of power argues that power is always held and used by a specific class of privileged people in each society.

2. Elite theory of power

This theory states that in each society, power is held and used by a small group of elite individuals. These individuals make all major decisions and rule society as a whole.

The ‘power elite’ is a small group of people who form the center of power in each society. The elite theory of power states that even in democracies, the power lies in the hands of the elected elite of political leaders.

3. Pluralist theory of power

The pluralist theory of power rejects the two theories mentioned above. Instead, it argues that power in every society isn’t used by a single class or elite group but by many different groups.

In this theory, each society has different groups, each representing major interests.

These groups compete for power and influence within a society. They use their activities to sway political policies and decisions.

Pluralism argues that social groups use power. Power is not monopolized by the state.

4. Gender theory of power

Gender theory states that men hold power and dominate women as a collective group. The power in each society is concentrated in the hands of a group of men.

group-of-male-colleagues-strategizing-what-is-power

The theory states that each society is divided based on gender into dominant male groups and dependent female groups.

The gender theory of power asserts that each society’s power is currently exercised through a system of male domination. This should be replaced by a system that focuses on social, political, and economic equality across genders.

How to use power

Power is present throughout workplaces, organizations, and businesses across the world. Each person within those organizations has different types of power. Each form of power can be used in different ways to reach desired goals and outcomes.

But what does power mean in an organizational context, and what does power do here?

These are the forms of power most often held by individuals and organizations in our society. Let's look at how these forms of power are used in working and socioeconomic environments.

1. Political power

Power is usually used to influence the actions of others. In a political context, politicians use their power to set laws and regulations. In the workplace, management uses their political power to determine rules for employees.

For example, managers use their political power to promote respectful interactions between employees. This fosters a positive company culture that supports effective recruitment and reduces staff turnover.

Those in positions of political power can regulate the actions and abilities of those who do not hold similar power.

2. Economic power

People who govern economic resources, like incomes, have economic power over others.

For example, business owners can use their economic power to control employees’ actions. This can be done with incentives like salary increases, benefits, and bonuses.

3. Cultural power

Our interactions with the media, religion, and people of interest shape our social realities. The media can shape and alter our thoughts by showing us certain news stories that they deem worthy of coverage. In the process, they can marginalize other stories.

Business owners can also exert cultural power. For example, they can create culturally diverse and inclusive workplaces for their employees. Or they can restrict certain culture-specific actions  to create a dominant culture in line with their own social realities.

Power in the workplace

What or who is the power source in the modern workplace?

There are two main forms of power in the workplace: bestowed forms and earned forms.

Bestowed power comes from the top of an organization and filters down to its bottom levels. This is the form of power that a supervisor or manager may exert in a decentralized organization.

manager-discussing-with-employee-what-is-power

A manager’s authority is associated with their high position in the company they work for. Their authority is given to them along with the position they fill.

Subordinates will listen to a manager’s instructions because of this bestowed power. They fear the repercussions of not listening to orders.

Earned power comes from employees’ educational backgrounds and experience in their fields.

Any worker can wield this type of power, depending on their roles and responsibilities.

For example, a staff member with IT experience can exert power when handling their company’s network issues. An experienced HR manager will exert power during the recruitment of new talent.

Earned power is situational and cannot be exerted by every staff member all the time. On the other hand, bestowed power is more consistent.

What is power? Your secret weapon

Power exists in different ways in every workplace in the world. It exists even without formal hierarchies or titles.

How leaders and managers choose to exercise their power in the workplace will shape the dynamics of their organization. It will also influence how each employee acts and works toward reaching company goals.

Power is also related to self-awareness. The more we can cultivate this awareness, the better equipped we will be to use our power in constructive and beneficial ways.

Contact BetterUp for expert coaching and guidance on how to use your personal power to the full advantage of your business.

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Published October 5, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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