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Power Bases in Your Project: Who has the Power to Make Things Happen?

Power Bases in Your Project: Who has the Power to Make Things Happen?

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.

Essential Models for Project Managers

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

PMP Exam Content Outline

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

  • 1: Manage conflict
  • 2: Lead a team
  • 4: Empower team members and stakeholder
  • 7: Address and remove impediments, obstacles, and blockers from the team
  • 8: Negotiate project agreements

Domain III: Business Environment

  • 1: Plan and manage project compliance

French and Raven’s Study of Social Power Bases

Power Bases in Your Project: Who has the Power to Make Things Happen?
Power Bases in Projects

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:

  1. Positional Power
    …which flows from the status granted to us
  2. Personal Power
    …which we earn by our endeavors

Now, we tend to recognise eight power bases, which we’ll look at in this article.

Get the Essentials in Video Format…

Sources of Power: The Eight Principal Power Bases

Power Bases - French & Raven
Power Bases – French & Raven

Sources of Personal Power

Referent Power

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.

Expert Power

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:

  • evaluate that knowledge
  • use that knowledge
  • extend that knowledge
  • teach that knowledge

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.

Connection Power

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.

Information Power

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.

Sources of Positional Power

Legitimate Power

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.

Coercive Power

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.

Learn More

What? You expect an article on how to coerce people?

It’s not going to happen!

Reward Power

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.

Learn More

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:

Resource Power

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:

  • Resources: funds, equipment, supplies, etc – or
  • People: clients, bosses, sponsors, stakeholders

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.

Learn More

For more on Resource Power, start with our article:Project Procurement Management [All the basics you need to know].

Critique of the Power Bases Model

The Power Bases model is not without weaknesses. Indeed, no model ever is. The criticisms leveled at power bases are two-fold.

Research base

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.

Context

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.

Authority, Power, and Leadership

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 and Power Bases

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:

  • Intellectual Authority
    This arises when the people around you recognize and value your Expert and Information Power Bases.
  • Moral Authority
    This is an element of your Referent Power. You are granted moral authority when team members add stakeholders value the integrity of your choices.

However, when we talk about ‘leadership without authority’, we are referring to hierarchical authority and, therefore, to Legitimate Power.

Leadership and Power Bases

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.

The Power of a Servant Leader

I wrote extensively about servant leadership, because it is my personal favourite model of leadership:

How Servant Leadership can Deliver Better Results from Your Project Team

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.

Power Bases and Inspirational Motivation

A big part of a Project manager’s day-to-day job is inspiring and motivating both:

  • Your Team, and
  • Your Stakeholders

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:

  • Connection Power
  • Reward Power
  • Expert Power

Power Bases and the Power to Get Things Done

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.

Decision-making Authority: the Power to Make Project Choices

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:

  1. Information you need, to build an informed judgment
  2. Expertise to evaluate the choices before you
  3. Formal authority to make the decision

Learn More about Decision Making

For more on Decision-making, you need our two articles:

  1. The Essential Guide to Robust Project Decision Making
  2. Rapid Decision Making in Projects: How to Get it Right

Using Power Bases to Resolve Issues

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:

Issue Management: All You Need to Know about PMBoK’s Missing Process

Let’s take a look at two particular contexts…

The Power to Resolve Conflicts

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:

  • Mediate and help the parties find a solution, or
  • Arbitrate and impose a solution

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.

Conflicts with Rules: Power in Negotiation

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:

  • Legitimate Power
    …to make an agreement
  • Expert and Information Power
    …to assess the best agreement
  • Resource Power
    …to access the resources that you need to meet your side of the bargain
  • Referent Power
    …to build the relationship (and trust) that agreement requires

One might even argue that a negotiation is about finding the right balance of coercion and reward to satisfy both parties!

Power Over Your Project: The Audit and Assurance Power Base

The last form of power to cover is the power held by any person or team that is responsible for:

  • Compliance
  • Audit
  • Assurance
  • Quality Control

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:

  • Reward Power
    …the ability to issue certificates, accreditation, or sign-off
  • Coercive Power
    …the ability to sanction or punish non-conformity

What do you think?

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?

About the Author Mike Clayton

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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