Conceptual frameworks of Power in organizations

Posted on 8 Ιουνίου , 2006


Author: Apostolos Tsorakis

The concept of human societies and human organizations entails the concept of power in a wide range of interpretations. Power is seen as the ability to influence, an ability to affect, an ability to mobilize, a capacity to exert influence, the ability to employ sanctions and so on. There is a range of definitions that the meaning of power, influence control, domination, and authority are not sharply cut off from one another. (Pheby, 2004)

Power in organisations is classically represented by Weber (1947) and is directly concerned with hierarchy or structure and legitimacy. At times of change however, illegitimate power is recognised as of considerable significance. ‘Insiders are not always obedient’ Minzberg (1983).

One of the major theories of power, exchange theory, has as its central assertion in the exchange theory as it appears in economics and has been the notion of the market that is called catallaxy. A catallaxy is a market order without planned ends, characterized by the ‘spontaneous order’ which emerges when individuals pursue their own ends within a framework set by law and tradition. (Hayek, 1982) In a broader organisational context, emphasis on the interpersonal relationships between manager and subordinates or leader and followers can offer an insight into the complicity of power and organisation. The figure shows the sources of power in an organisation and the effects of the Exchange Theory. 

Reward Power is an individual’s ability to influence others’ behaviour by rewarding their desirable behaviour. Coercive Power is an individual’s ability to influence others’ behaviour by means of punishment for undesirable behaviour. Legitimate Power most frequently refers to the manager’s ability to influence subordinates’ behaviour because of the manager’s position in the organisation hierarchy. Expert Power is an individual’s ability to influence others’ behaviour because of skills, talents or specialised knowledge possessed by the individual. Referent Power is an individual’s ability to influence others’ behaviour as a result of being liked or admired.

The hierarchical relationship between manager and subordinate is not the only dimension of power in an organisation. Power can exist from situations created from the design of the organisation, the type of departmental structure, the opportunity to influence, access to powerful individuals and critical resources. In general, structural and situational sources of power are created by the division of labour and departmentalisation, which naturally result in unequal access to information, resources, decision-making, and other individuals and groups. Knowledge as power means that individuals, groups or departments that possess knowledge crucial to attaining or meeting the organisational goals have power. Resources as power suggest that groups or departments or individuals who can provide critical or difficult to obtain resources acquire power in the organisation. Decision making as power means that individuals or groups acquire power to the extend that they can affect some part of the decision making process. Networks as power imply that various affiliations and coalitions, both inside and outside the organisation, represent sources of power.

It may be argued that users of technology gain power themselves due to a lack of technological training amongst more senior members of the organisation but it is in the information, not the technology that power lies. The use of technological know-how to misrepresent or manipulate data will inevitably be exposed and the use of standard software packages and ‘open systems’ reduces the chance to possess unique knowledge.

Knowing what is going on is what enhances power and the knowledge that such a capability exists clearly enhances subjugation. This seems to be the pivot of the relationship between technology and the labour process in an organisation and explains the change from the industrial bureaucracies of the pre-computer era to the modern information based organisation.

Sources of power are multi-various but the acquisition of power, the loss of power or shifts in the balance of power are likely to occur during times of heightened political activity within an organisation. Strategic and tactical moves are most likely to be made during periods of change and the disruptive effect of implementation of change (especially new technology) creates many threats and opportunities. The concept of ‘early adopters’ was explored by Burkhardt and Brass (1990). They predicted that early adopting individuals (those who readily embrace the new technology) increase their centrality and power within the organisation regardless of the success of the technology industry wide.

When the organisations decision is correct in that it adopts industries eventual dominant design, individual adopters will maintain and ever strengthen their power and position. When the decision is wrong (ie an alternative design becomes dominant in the industry) individual increases in power and centrality may be temporary and last only until the organisation makes the decision to abandon and replace the unsuccessful technology.

A useful summary of cause and effect with respect to early adopters and organisational structure and power is:
• If early adopters are more central than late adopters prior to technological change the existing structure will be reinforced.
• If early adopters are less central than late adopters prior to the change then a structural change will occur.
• If early adopters are more powerful than late adopters prior to the change a redistribution of power is unlikely.
• If early adopters are less powerful than late adopters prior to the change a redistribution of power will occur.

The changes brought about by the implementation of new technology create a climate, if not the need for shifts of centrality and power and engender a rewarding environment for the politically astute.

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