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Defining Power in Organizations

Defining Power in Organizations
So before we can understand how to build and leverage our own informal power, we first have to come to some understanding of what is power? And that’s the question we’re gonna focus on now. What is power, and what does our research say about what are the key elements or core dimensions of power and organizations? We’ve been studying power now for over 100 years, as academics, as researchers, as practitioners. And so in helping you understand how to think about and conceptualize the core elements of power. I’ve gone all the way back to what I can find as the orignal thinking on power to really start to unpack this definition of what is power.
And so the first set of definitions that I’ll share with you are from Weber in the early 1900s, now over 100 years ago, 1914. Where Weber really described or defined power as the ability for one actor, one person to carry out his own position to achieve his own goals, despite resistance to those. So really the ability for a person to carry out his own position, achieve his goals, despite if other people are resisting that. And that’s why I label this definition, power is the potential for influence, it’s not influence itself, but power gives you the potential to influence other people to carry out your own position, even if other people are gonna resist that.
Very similar to that definition is one that has now become classic, which is French and Raven in 1959, who define power as the maximum potential ability of one person, in this case A, to influence another person, in this case B. So again here, you can see that both Weber, French, and Raven are defining power as the potential ability to influence other people. It’s that source, that foundation that gives you the opportunity to influence other people and so what is that? And that’s what we’re going to really discuss in this week. There’s another set of definitions that I think are equally as valid and important for us to recognize and understand and that is power as the control over outcomes.
And here we see one of the classic definitions is Emerson in 1962 where Emerson defined power as the power to control or influence the other, that resides in your control over things that that other person, he or she, values. So your power to control or influence that other person resides ultimately in the extent to which you have control over things that those persons value, that’s Emerson’s definition. And likely has been one of the most commonly used definitely of power around the world in modern day. But I think it’s also important to recognize this other definition here in the early 1990s. Asymmetrical control over another person’s outcomes.
Asymmetrical here being, you have more control over my outcomes than I have control over your outcomes. And in this relational context, in this relationship that means you would have more power over me. Now I think that’s a really important definition to understand and so these are historical definitions now that are most common, most popular. What I’ve done and what I’ll show you next is I’ve unpacked all of these definitions that exist to really try to get at the core. What are those core attributes that really give us a sense of what power is in organizations today and I think these are the important things you need to remember.
First is that power is relative, in any relationship or relational context, power is relative. So if you’re working with your boss, in that relationship or in that situation at least formally, structurally, your boss has more power than you. But if you turn around and in your next meeting you go and you are the highest ranking person in that meeting, you, at least formally, structurally, are the highest powered person in that room. That gives you a sense of power is relative it all depends on who you are working with and power is ultimately defined by the relative ranking in terms of that social hierarchy of whoever’s in that room. That’s important because it does mean that power’s also contextual.
There’s no absolute sense of power. So the Forbes ranking that I gave you earlier, those individuals are all powerful individuals. But their power is all contextual, in the sense that in some situations, depending on who else is around, depending on where they sit in the social hierarchy, they may not be the most powerful person in the room. Again, it’s relative, it’s contextual, it depends on the situation, I think that’s really important for everyone to understand. The second thing that I will point out to you, if we can agree that power is about the control over resources or outcomes, using Emerson’s definition for example, that control varies in how formalized it is.
Sometimes I have control because my job description, my job title, has formalized that. Sometimes I have that control because of our relationship, sometimes I have that control because I have the expertise or the information, but that’s not formalized necessarily. So it varies in how formalized it is, is also varies in how stable it is. In today’s knowledge economy, what is information and what information is valued and what information is rare is extremely dynamic. It’s changing all the time and so if information is your base of power, that is a very dynamic and possibly fleeting source of power.
In other cases, for example if you’re the president of the United States, that is a particularly stable source of power at least while you’re in office, okay. And the same thing for legitimacy, control in some cases extremely legitimated by the structure or the relationship that you’re in. In other cases it’s not, so that control varies quite a bit across situations, across relationships and so forth. Thirdly, the same is true on outcomes, if you look at Emerson’s definition or the definition below that, Depret and Fiske, it’s control over outcomes where those outcomes are valued by the other person. Well, we all know that organizations are diverse, look at the teams that you work in or that you’ve had experience working in.
What outcomes are valued by different people? It varies tremendously and so, your power, therefore, over those individuals or with respect to those individuals, will also vary to the extent that the outcomes you control are valued or not. Very important to understand and then last, is that power can both be actual but it can also be perceptual. And we’ll talk extensively this week about the perceptual side of power, even in situations. Think of the students in Hong Kong who really started the momentum, the social movement of Occupy Central. Those students, they didn’t have a lot of actual power, but they enacted their power, they created perceptions that they were leading this social movement.
That built on itself over time, that perception where overtime that power became more legitimate, a little more stable, a little more formalized. It’s important to remember power can be actual, a reality, an objective reality, but it can also be in the minds of ourselves in the minds of other people, and often times we co-create this perception of who’s powerful, and who’s not. If we can agree on those basic fundamental attributes of, what is power, now we can start to understand in relationships, in organizations, across diverse sets of people. How can we build our power, actual and perceptual, across these different individuals, across these different relationships in the organizations that we work in?
But we first have to understand, what is power and this gives you a framework for both defining it and understanding those foundational dimensions that really explain why someone is perceived as powerful. And why other people are not, even if their position, their job title is exactly the same. So what we’ve done here is we’ve given several different definitions of power but I think even more importantly is that we’ve outlined some very foundational dimensions of what is power across all of these different definitions. It’s relative, it’s contextual. Our control varies across situations, formal, stable, legitimate. What outcomes are valued vary by people and that power can both be an objective reality, actual but it could be also perceptual.
All very important things to keep in mind. So, when you look at these definitions, and again, there’s no right or wrong definition here, but when you look at these definitions, you look at these attributes that I’m calling out as being important, here’s my question for you. Which is, do you agree or do you disagree with this definition or these definitions and why? And building on these definitions, how would you define power? So what I’d like you to do, and this week we’re gonna do a lot of work in our discussion forums. What I’d like you to do is go to that discussion forum around the definition of power and articulate for yourself how you define power.
How it aligns or is misaligned or just different with the definitions that I given you and some of those key attributes. Maybe you agree with all of them or maybe you agree with just some of them. Maybe you disagree with all of them, most importantly, you have your definition of power. And then once we have those definitions, then we can really start to unpack. What are the strategies? What are the practices that I can use to start building my base of power so that I have greater influence in my team, in my organization.

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