Where does power in an organization come from?

When it comes to organizations, there are three types of power, which essentially means influence. These three ways of gaining influence in an organization are subject matter expert power, role influence (also known as role power), and influence through relationships.

Subject matter expert power refers to the influence held by individuals who possess extensive expertise in a specific field. In an ideal scenario, decisions in an organization are purely based on merit, where experts have the most influence. However, this is often impractical because subject matter experts may not be interested in management roles, and even if they are, they may not excel at leading people.

Role influence, on the other hand, is driven by the power associated with a specific position or role within an organization. This tends to create a more authoritarian environment, resembling a commander style. Such organizations operate in stable environments where the rules remain constant, and the work is relatively simple. However, it’s important to note that in modern organizations, it’s unlikely that the manager always knows more than their subordinates.

The third type of influence in an organization is based on relationships. Humans naturally tend to respond positively to requests from people they like or have a good relationship with. Building strong relationships can create an ideal work environment where tasks are accomplished smoothly through collaboration and trust. However, relying solely on relationship power is not feasible in most cases, as individuals require additional motivation and organizations often exceed the number of meaningful social connections one can have, which is believed to be around 150 (Dunbar’s number).

In reality, organizations do not rely solely on one type of influence. Instead, they operate with different combinations and permutations of the various influences discussed. As you navigate your career, it’s important to understand what works best for you. Whenever possible, fostering strong relationship power can lead to better outcomes for both you and your team. However, there may be situations where role power becomes necessary, especially when certain decisions need to be made efficiently or when addressing performance issues.

It’s crucial to remember that even in seemingly egalitarian organizations, hierarchy and certain behavioral expectations exist. It’s generally advisable to adhere to professional standards, such as punctuality, and to exercise caution when providing negative feedback to superiors in public situations.

What are your own thoughts on influence and power in an org? Talk to me on my Twitter @jchex


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Software Project Manager