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Power Bases in Projects: Do You Have the Power?

Power Bases in Projects
Power Bases in Projects

Power Bases in Projects

Social power is the ability to influence other people. And Project Managers need to influence your stakeholders. So an understanding of Power Bases in projects is a valuable tool for your kit-bag.

French and Raven’s Study of Social Power Bases

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 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 endeavours

Sources of Power: The Eight Principal Power Bases

Power Bases - French & Raven

Power Bases – French & Raven

Sources of Personal Power

Referent Power is the influence you exert through personal relationships, charisma, and likability.  It is about who you are and the choices you make in your dealings with people, and can be wielded with or without integrity. Referent power is one of the principal power bases for a project manager. By the way, the somewhat unusual label simply means that this is the power that stems from the person to whom it refers.

You have Expert Power by virtue of the knowledge and skills you have developed through study, practice, and experience.  This gives you an authority that often commands great respect.  You must, of course, continue to invest 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.

Networking gives you Connection Power. Now you can use your links to other influential people to support your own, more direct, power.  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.

The other personal power base is Information Power.  This is the power we have stemming from our access to information.

Sources of Positional Power

Legitimate Power is the epitome of positional power, arising from the authority of your place in a hierarchy.  It depends upon people’s willingness to defer to seniority. This is the power your Project Board, and you boss, client, or sponsor have over the project.

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 when we hear of Project managers needing to exert influence without authority, this is usually what people mean.

Its counterpart 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, recognition and thanks are often a big enough reward for may project team members. So too is the chance to take on interesting work, develop our skills, and to work autonomously.

Neither Information nor Connection Power satisfactorily account for the power that certain “gatekeepers” have in organizations. We often encounter them in our projects. They can control your access to wider resources: funds, equipment, supplies, etc.  And these are often middle-ranking, junior, or even administrative colleagues with little legitimate power, so wield Resource Power as a proxy, to meet their need for control in their workplace. Resource Power is missing from French & Raven’s original work. To some extent, you can see contractors and consultants partly as having expert power, and largely as having resource power.

Critique of the Power Bases Model

The criticisms levelled at power bases are two-fold.

Firstly, they are seen as arbitrary and under-researched.  On the other hand, they do 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.

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.

What do you think?

How does the Power bases model apply in the project you are working on. Or how could you apply it in other projects you have worked on?

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 13 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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