Balancing Views on Power

Our uneasiness about power perhaps explains the fact that US management writers long neglected the subject. In recent years, that has changed? David McClelland, for example, has described “two faces of power”, a negative face and a positive one. The negative face is usually expressed in terms of dominance submission: “If I win”, “you lose”. In this sense, to have power implies having power over someone else, who is less well off for it. Management based on the negative face of power regards people as little more than pawns to be used or sacrificed as the need arises. This is self defeating to the power wielder, because people who feel they are pawns tend either to resist authority or to accept it too passively. In either case, their value to the manager is severely limited.

The positive face of power is best characterized by a concern for group goals for helping to formulate and achieve them. It involves exerting influence on behalf of, rather than over, others. Managers who exerciser their power positively encourage group members to develop the strength and competence they need to succeed as individuals and as members of the organization. Jim Mullen focuses on the positive use of power: Managers are not in the managing business at all – they are really in the teaching business. Every philosophy attitude and business practice used by a company in dealing with its employees will be recycled by the employees with that company’s customers. Mullen president and founder of Mullen, an $85 million advertising and public relations agency in Wenham, Massachusetts, continues:

When you come to terms with the fact that your employees know more than you do, it is one short step to accepting that in their areas of expertise they are quite likely to make better decisions than you will. The secret is to let them get on with their jobs. Management’s number one function therefore is to find the most talented, caring people available then get the hell out of their way.

McClelland and David H Burnham report that successful managers have a need to influence others more for the benefit of people at the organization than for self aggrandizement. Managers who use their power with self control will be more effective than those who wield power to satisfy a need to dominate others or those who refuse to use their power out of a strong need to be liked. When a manager continually eases rules and changes procedures to accommodate employees, employees will see that manager not as flexible, but as weak and indecisive. McClelland concluded that good managers exercise power with restraint on behalf of others. Such managers encourage team spirit, support employees and reward their achievements thereby raising morale.

The external environment of organizations has contributed to the growing need for power skills among managers.

Power can easily become institutionalized. Those whom others believe to possess power seem to find it easier to influence the people around them and thus to garner even more genuine power. By the same token “powerlessness” is a difficult condition to overcome. Many of the problems experienced by women and minorities can be traced to their lack of power rather than to gender or race. A number of ways are proposed so that an organizational member can acquire power.

Power is not limited to managers. All members of an organization can have a great deal of power because of their knowledge, their skills, or the resources they control. At Nordstrom, sales associates have power because they are the people in a position to satisfy customers. In a hospital, experienced nurses may gain influence over new doctors when they “show them the ropes” Even copy machine attendants have some power, because they can impede or improve a manager’s work flow. As people rely more and more on computers, employees with computer skills can exercise increasing influence over an organization’s day-to-day activities. Knowledge, combined with hands on input into daily activities, is tantamount to power, and those members of an organization who possess key skills are in a position to secure themselves a base of practical power.

Power, then, is an important fact of organizational life. Managers must not only accept and understand it as integral part of their jobs, but must also learn hoe to use it(without abusing it) to further their own and organizational goals.