Power and Managers’ Roles

by Dr Lew Tek Yew and Tiong Siew Ping

Power is defined as the ability or potential to influence others or to control a situation.

Managers exercise power to fulfil their roles in an organisation, and they exercise different levels of power based on their abilities and beliefs. A good manager is able to use his power effectively and, at the same time, contribute to the organisation’s goals and objectives.

There are several frameworks which attempt to define managerial power. Based on the ‘power as property’ viewpoint, power is perceived either as a property of individuals, property of relationships, or as an embedded property of structures (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004).

Power is perceived as a property of individuals when an individual possess power through his personal attributes or position in an organisation (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004). For example, an experienced, charismatic human resource manager is considered as having power given his experience in management, his charismatic leadership, and his position as a manager.

Power as a property of relationships is an individual’s power based on the recognition of others (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004). The five power bases that appeal to this concept are: coercive power (ability to punish), reward power (ability to reward), legitimate power (authority associated with the position), expert power (arises from the knowledge and expertise of the individual), and referent power (relates to the charisma of an individual).

The basic premise underlying the power as an embedded property of structures theory is that when organisations are conceived as inter-departmental systems, the division of labour becomes the ultimate source of intra-organisational power. Power is defined by variables of each sub-unit’s task, functioning and links with other sub-units and the horizontal pattern of power is primarily a product of structural rather than personal factors.

According to Mintzberg, managerial roles can be grouped into those concerned with interpersonal relationships, with the transfer of information, and with decision-making (Robbins et al. 2003). Figurehead roles, leader roles and liaison roles are categorised under interpersonal roles; monitor roles, disseminator roles, and spokesperson roles are categorised under informational roles; while entrepreneurship, disturbance handler, resource allocator and negotiator roles are categorised under decisional roles (Robbins et al. 2003).

To fulfil his managerial role, a manager must have both personal and structural sources of power. For example, a production supervisor with the water board who is obliged to give a tour of his water treatment plant and explain the process of water treatment to a group of engineering students will need to have personal sources such as an intensive knowledge of the water treatment process, good communication skills and a friendly personality. He will also need to have structural sources, such as the authority to lead the tour and give a briefing.

A powerful manager is able to exercise power unilaterally, and at the same time, build alliances, social networks and coalitions. A manager with sufficient personal resources, a high level of communication skills, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Intelligence Quotient (IQ), is able influence people in a more subtle way to get information he wants.

French and Raven’s typology of power bases are categorised into organisational sources of power (reward, coercive, and legitimate powers); those directly connected to the individual’s position in the organisation; personal forms of power (expert and referent powers); and those based on the individual’s perceived competence.

A supervisor who plays a leadership role might possess legitimate power or authority to tell his subordinates what to do, coercive power to force them to behave, reward power to motivate them, expert power to win their trust, and referent power to generate fame for himself. Ideally, an effective manager should possess more than one type of power to sustain his influence, as the possession of power is based on the perception of his followers and perception tends to change over time.

Research has found that the expertise, reward, referent, and coercive power bases are inter-correlated. Referent power is always associated with expert power. A manager who is an expert in a certain work area will be seen as a role model among his subordinates. Coercive power undoubtedly results in the loss of referent power as people do not like to be scolded and threatened.

The biggest drawback of perceptual power is that a manager might not realise he has strong interpersonal influence in his relationships. Instead of building on it, he might seek more power through aggressive networking within and outside the organisation, which might then result in a negative impact on his relationships. As people generally do not know how others perceive them, a manager might not be confident enough to exert influence over others, and while some might underestimate their influence, others might overestimate it.

Under the power as an embedded property of structures theory, the department which controls critical resources will have more power. For example, the customer service department might be regarded as being more powerful compared to other departments as it stores customer information, provides post-purchase services and handles customer complaints. Other departments depend on it for information to enhance the purchase experience and correct mistakes.

Furthermore, the department will be more powerful if it controls critical financial resources; if it plays the most important role in the organisation (centrality); if its services are irreplaceable (non-substitutability); if no other department can obtain information about customers or has staff specialising in dealing with customers; or if the department has the best strategy to cope with uncertainty (uncertainty).

It is obvious that the three perspectives of power are inter-linked. Managers commonly have a combination of two powers – either power as property of individuals combined with power embedded in the structure of the organisation, or power as property of individuals and power as property of relationships. Ideally, managers should possess a combination of all three perspectives.

Dr. Lew Tek Yew is a senior lecturer in management at the School of Business at Curtin Sarawak. He has published more than 30 journal articles and conference papers. His research interests include human resource management practices, perceived organisational support, employee commitment and turnover. He can be contacted by e-mail to lew.tek.yew@curtin.edu.my.

Tiong Siew Ping is a graduate of the School of Business.