Social power is the ability to influence other people and make things happen. As a Project Manager, a big part of your role is to influence your stakeholders. And the obvious part of your job is to make things happen. So an understanding of power in projects is a valuable tool for your kit-bag. Therefore, Power Bases is an essential model for Project Managers to understand.
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
This article will help you with the following elements of the June 2019 PMP Examination Content Outline (for the January 2021 Exam).
Domain I: People
Domain III: Business Environment
Many thinkers have sought the source of this power. And perhaps the most successful were John French and Bertram Raven. Their study of social power bases is valuable to us in understanding the power dynamics within and surrounding a project.
French and Raven originally identified seven categories of power, referring to them as Power Bases. And we often divide them into two groups:
Now, we tend to recognise eight power bases, which we’ll look at in this article.
Referent Power is the influence you exert through the strength of your personality and character. We recognize referent power in the forms of presence, charisma, gravitas, and likability.
Referent Power is about who you are and the choices you make in your dealings with people. Therefore, you can wield it with or without integrity.
Referent power is one of the principal power bases for a project manager.
By the way, the somewhat unusual label name of this power base means that this is the power that stems from the person to whom it refers.
For more on Referent Power, start with ‘12 Simple Tips that will Give You Amazing Professional Presence‘. Then, please do take a look at these articles:
You have Expert Power by virtue of the knowledge and skills you have developed through study, practice, and experience. But, it also includes the ability to:
Expert Power gives you an authority that often commands great respect. You must, of course, continue to invest in learning and practicing, if you want to maintain this power base.
There will be people on your project with expert power, and if you fail to respect it, you will rapidly lose control of their goodwill and possibly of their performance.
For more on Expert Power, please do take a look at our video that answers the question, ‘What are T-shaped People?’
Networking is the way you can build your Connection Power. You can use your links to other influential people to support your own, more direct, power.
But networking alone is not enough. You must also cultivate and grow those relationships. Think of meeting people as planting seeds. Now you need to attend to the fragile plant and look after its wellbeing.
Along with referent power, this is how effective Project Managers can engage positively with stakeholders, and influence them. Good listening and consultation the best way to start building your connection power.
For more on Connection Power, start with this short video: ‘Influencing Stakeholders: Start at the Bottom‘. Then look at:
The other personal power base is Information Power. This is the power we have stemming from our access to information.
Information power is easier to gather than Expert Power. Anyone can learn the contents of the PRINCE2 manual or the PMBOK Guide. That will give them Information Power. But, the ability to be able to use and apply that knowledge is Expert Power.
For more on Expert Power, please do take a look at our article, ‘Project Management Knowledge Areas: How Many Are There? [Not 10]‘. Other articles, that may help you with this, include:
Legitimate Power is the epitome of positional power, arising from the authority of your place in a hierarchy. Therefore, it is also known as Hierarchical Power.
However, wielding Legitimate Power successfully depends upon people’s willingness to defer to seniority. This is the power your Project Board, and your boss, client, or sponsor have over you and your project. Your project’s governance processes are largely an exercise of Legitimate Power.
For more on Legitimate Power, please do take a look at What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot]. You may also like the articles below.
For dealing with Legitimate Power
For wielding Legitimate Power
About Project Governance
At root, Coercive Power is based on fear – the ability to impose your will by threat of sanction. To a high degree, this is often absent from a project. And it should be.
Coercive Power often stems from a measure of Legitimate Power, coupled with an arrogant and aggressive mindset. Project Managers need to wield power, without authority. But attempting to force people to do something is, in my view, ultimately a sign of weakness in the areas of personal power.
What? You expect an article on how to coerce people?
It’s not going to happen!
The counterpart to coercive power is Reward Power. This stems from the inducements or rewards you can offer. Whilst a Project Manager will rarely have control of the reins of organizational rewards; you can still exercise reward power… And do so with integrity.
Recognition, celebration, and simple thanks are often a big enough reward for many project team members. So too is the chance to take on interesting work, develop our skills, and to work autonomously.
Oops, we don’t seem to have any content yet, that is directly relevant. But, helping people to develop is a way of rewarding them, so you may like:
Neither Information Power (access to knowledge) nor Connection Power (access to people) satisfactorily account for the power that certain ‘gatekeepers’ have in organizations.
We often encounter these roles in our projects. They can control your access to:
Yet, these are often middle-ranking, junior, or even administrative colleagues with little legitimate power. So, they wield Resource Power as a proxy, to meet their need for control in their workplace.
Resource Power was missing from French & Raven’s original work. To some extent, you can also see suppliers, contractors, and consultants partly as having expert power, and largely as having resource power. Therefore, procurement is a part of your skillset for managing this power base.
The Power Bases model is not without weaknesses. Indeed, no model ever is. The criticisms leveled at power bases are two-fold.
Firstly, they are seen as arbitrary and under-researched. On the other hand, the model does explain and even predict behaviours. My solution is to use the model solely to evaluate the power bases in the context of your project. If it helps you plan your stakeholder and team engagement, good. Otherwise, put it to one side.
Next, the second critique is more philosophical. The strength (and therefore validity) of the positional power bases is greatly diminished in modern times. This is especially so in the project context. Indeed, ready access to information available on the internet is eroding the value of Information Power.
It was ever so. Look back at history and you will find cultures and times which experienced an information revolution. And periods and places where positional power reigned supreme, only to be challenged by individuals with uncommon personal power, who were ready to use it in opposition to the established hierarchy. Hear hear.
Although connected, authority, power, and leadership are different from one another. We have talked a lot about power. So, what of the other two? Let’s start with authority.
Authority is conferred by other people. Most often, we can see to as a form of Legitimate power. But there are other forms of authority that a Project manager can acquire. The two that come readily to mind are:
However, when we talk about ‘leadership without authority’, we are referring to hierarchical authority and, therefore, to Legitimate Power.
Here’s something we all know… Most people know which leader they would allow in a crisis. And it won’t always be the person with positional power. When it comes to leadership, it is mostly about Personal Power – and Referent Power in particular.
Without a doubt, the best leaders lead through compassion, and adapt to the needs of their followers and the situation at hand. This requires high levels of emotional intelligence. A more crude appeal to ‘power’ won’t do – especially in a modern context where followers have a choice.
I wrote extensively about servant leadership, because it is my personal favourite model of leadership:
There’s a summary video, too: What is Servant Leadership? Project Leadership at its Best.
In Servant Leadership, you deliberately refrain from using your power. Just this how much confidence it takes to let people be themselves and make their own choices. While they do that, all you do is serve them. On the one hand, its an abnegation of your power.
However, on the other hand, Servant Leadership is the ultimate statement of referent power. Because it is your trust in people that empowers them.
For more on Leadership, start with our article: ‘Project Manager to Project Leader: How Big is the Step?‘ Then check out our video, ‘Leadership Models Project Managers Need to Know‘.
And there is loads more on leadership here, including:
Some videos, answering the question, ‘What is...
A big part of a Project manager’s day-to-day job is inspiring and motivating both:
I don’t think I need to labor this point. We are back in the realm of Referent Power and, I hope, you will be seeing a pattern here!
But, it is also true to say that motivation and inspiration also draw on elements of:
On the face of it, the is where Hierarchical, or Legitimate, Power will thrive. Yet, I must return to a core observation. Many day-to-day project managers do not hold a lot of legitimate power. Often, many of your team members will report to other people. They may not be formally junior to you. And, indeed, you may be junior to them! That has happened to me more than once in my Project Management career.
So, you will rely on the authority you do have (see above) and on your referent power.
One area where you are likely to need legitimate power is in decision-making. You will also need (or need to draw upon) expert power and information power. Because, the three requirements for a robust decision are the:
The times when you most feel the need for power are when things get tricky. Issue Management seems to me to be under-represented in Project management methodologies:
Let’s take a look at two particular contexts…
Once again, much of the power you have to resolve conflicts is personal referent power. But here, your legitimate, reward, and even coercive power bases can be helpful. This is particularly the case if you wish to:
Be extremely wary of using coercive and reward power in the context of conflict. Because they have the potential to escalate the overall conflict level. But mediation and arbitration do often require a measure of legitimate power, along with some expert power too.
We mentioned the context of procurement, above, in the section on the Resource power base. But that is just one arena where you will need to negotiate. Here, you will need:
One might even argue that a negotiation is about finding the right balance of coercion and reward to satisfy both parties!
The last form of power to cover is the power held by any person or team that is responsible for:
Whilst these all require information and expert power, these are not the key. Here, the essential Power Base is Legitimate Power. And organization confers the authority on these people to make a judgement. And that legitimate power also comes with:
How does the Power Bases model apply to the project you are working on? Or how could you apply it to other projects you have worked on? Are there any other Project management areas in which you would like me to analyze the power bases at play?
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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