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…on power at work

Those of us who have to make decisions and manage people are always going to be targets: the boss is usually in the firing line. And people who are under pressure will often find someone else to blame — the boss is often the obvious choice. Although sitting complaining about the boss is really a cheap and easy option, it happens!

So how do you deal with it? Ignore it? Try to be nice? Become even tougher?

50 years ago French and Raven published their highly-influential paper, “The bases of social power” 1. They argued that there are five types of power between people.

  • Legitimate or legal power comes from a right to control and expect obedience. The police have this sort of power.

  • Coercive power is similar, but it comes from an ability to punish disobedience. A court has such power.

  • Reward power, as the term suggests, arises from someone’s capacity to give money or other awards in return for obedience.

  • Expert power arises from the person’s knowledge and/or ability. A scientific specialist such as pathologist is one example.

  • Referent power comes when someone earns the respect of others. A good football captain may be an example.

It has been argued that the best managers use the fourth and fifth of these, combining expert and referent power. When the boss has both expertise and others’ respect, subordinates come looking for advice and guidance rather than requiring direction and control.

In my own experience of bosses, the first two in the list above are both resented and also rather common. While staff may think that the boss is incompetent, he feels hard done by when people don’t do what he says. “Why should you do it? "Cos I say so!” is a recipe for failure. More to the point, legitimate and coercive power come too easily — they are the lazy person’s quick fix. If you have the power to fire someone, it’s not hard to get them to do what you want.

Where we might question French and Raven’s work is in the interface between boss and worker: some workers need a boss who tells them what to do - perhaps because they feel insecure or less able — while others need inspiration from the boss. It’s horses for courses to some extent, which is why a boss needs to know himself and his employees better than is often the case. It’s not just about knowing when a colleague has marital or health problems, although interest in and support through these things is important. Rather it’s about knowing what makes your staff member tick, so that you can motivate them to work better.

Clearly, in some situations, discipline needs to be imposed and the boss may need to wield a stick rather than offer a carrot. When disorder and laziness threaten the future of a business, there has to be a place for coercion and control. Bullying and other abusive behaviour usually require a more legalistic approach.

But not for ever. An organisation that relies long-term on this Big Boss approach may be well–disciplined, but it’s unlikely to get the best from employees. People don’t thrive under threat of dismissal. Creativity arises when people sense they have the freedom to be innovative and also therefore the freedom to fail.

And the answer to the question I started with, how to deal with anti-boss gossip? Ignore it. Be the kind of boss that people will speak up for. Recognise that what people complain about in you is more often a reflection of their own inadequacies than a genuine criticism of yours.

1 French, J. R. P., & Raven, B. H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150-167). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan

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