Power and Authority – Meaning, Definitions, Types and Theories


Contingency approach of power suggests that no particular power base is effective in all situations, rather, effectiveness of a power base depends on its matching the situational requirements prevailing at the time of use of power. Shetty, who has done work on contingency approach to power, has drawn two conclusions regarding effective use of power in today’s organisations:
i. Successful manager is one who is aware of the existence of multiple bases of power in work situations.
ii. The effectiveness of power types depends on the nature of managerial, subordinate, and organisational variables.

Contingency model of Power Effectiveness
There are various contingent variables that affect power effectiveness. These are explained below:


Contingency model of Power Effectiveness
Contingency model of Power Effectiveness


1. Agent’s Characteristics

The agent’s characteristics determine the extent to which power exercised by him will be effective or not. In organisational context, an agent may be a manager, a supervisor, or even a worker though in power relationship, a manager is taken as an agent because he is more responsible for achieving organisational objectives than a supervisor or worker. Following two characteristics of an agent affect power effectiveness:
i. Organisational Position
Organisational position of an agent determines his positional power vis-a-vis others. In a traditionally designed organisation structure with a large number of hierarchical levels, a person at a higher level commands more power bases than a person at a lower level. Thus, people at higher level can use positional power more effectively to get things done. However, what type of positional power will be more effective cannot be determined by considering the agent’s organisational position.

ii. Personality Characteristics
It has been observed that people working at the same hierarchical level in the same organisation differ in terms of power use; some people become more effective. In power use, others remain less effective. This difference is due to the differences in personality characteristics. Following conclusions about personality characteristics and power effectiveness can be drawn:
(a) People with high match score (high match score means high willingness to twist and turn facts to influence other) tend to use coercive power and information power more effectively than those with low match score.
(b) More conscientious people use legitimate and reward power more effectively than less conscientious people.
(c) People with high self-esteem (a self-belief that they can make the things happen) rely more on personal power than their positional power. This happens because such people develop expertise and other relevant skills to protect their high self-esteem.
(d) People with high openness and extroversion tend to use personal power more effectively than other people.

2. Target’s Characteristics

Power effectiveness based on agent’s characteristics is moderated by target’s characteristics because power involves a reciprocal relationship between the agent and the target. Therefore, any power used by the agent will be effective or ineffective depending on the influencibility of the target. Influencibility of target of power indicates the degree to which the target accepts influence generated by agent’s use of power. This influencibility is affected by the following factors:

i. Dependency

Degree of dependency of the target on the agent determines the extent to which power will be effective. As discussed earlier, dependency of the target depends on the resources controlled by the agent. If this dependency is high, power influence will be high. In the alternative case, it will be low.

ii. Uncertainty

Certainty or uncertainty in the mind of the agent about appropriateness of his behaviour determines his influenceability. Research studies show that more uncertain people are about the appropriateness or correctness of their behaviour, more they are influenced by power.

iii. Personality

There are various research studies which show relationship between personality and influenceability. For example, people who cannot tolerate ambiguity or who are highly anxious are more susceptible to influence. Similarly, people who have high need for affiliation are more prone to be influenced. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem are less prone to be influenced by positional power.

iv.  Intelligence

Though there is no conclusive proof about direct relationship between intelligence and influenciability, it has been observed that more intelligent people are less susceptible to influence generated by positional power. A possible reason for this phenomenon may be that more intelligent people have high self-esteem which works as resistant to influence.

v.  Culture

Characteristics of culture to which targets belong affect their influenceability. For example, people coming from a culture which is oriented to authority are highly susceptible to influence while people coming from a culture having low authority orientation are less susceptible to influence.

3. Organisational Characteristics

Power relationship between agent and target does not exist in vacuum but exists in a context; in the society, in social context, in the organisation, organisational context. Therefore, in organisational context, power relationship between the agent and the target based on their characteristics is modified, to a great extent, by organisational characteristics. In fact, most of the organisations devise certain parameters within which power relationship exists among people. These parameters affect what power bases will be used by the agents and in what degree, as well as what responses will be shown by agents to these powers. The major organisational factors that affect power relationship are organisation structure, nature of task, performance evaluation and reward system, and organisational culture.

i. Organisation Structure

Organisation structure prescribes relationship among different positions. Since these positions are held by individuals, organisation structure prescribes relationship among different individuals. Dependency of one individual on another is affected prescription of this relationship. For example, in a bureaucratic organisation where a lower- level person is subject to control by a higher-level person, positional power becomes more dominant. In alternative organisational designs like project organisation or matrix organisation, there is less hierarchical pressure. Therefore, people have to use their personal power to get things done.

ii. Nature of Task

Nature of task in terms of autonomy and visibility affects power relationship. Degree of autonomy indicates whether the task performance is autonomous or it is dependent on others. Tasks that have autonomy have in-built power for task performance. Therefore, individuals who perform such tasks are less susceptible to external power influence. Tasks that are dependent on others do not have such type of power. Therefore, individuals performing such tasks are more prone to influence. Visibility of a task determines its power vis-a-vis other tasks. Fbr example, marketing function in a business organisation has high visibility and, therefore, more power; human resource function has low visibility and less power.

iii. Performance Evaluation and Reward System

Everyone in an organisation wants to show good performance (whether actual or manipulated) to get good reward. Irony is that performance evaluation is done not by those who perform but by those who have control over reward distribution. If this performance evaluation and reward system is faulty, task performers are highly susceptible to power influence. Many examples of bureaucratic system confirm this conclusion. If the performance evaluation and reward system is fair and objective, people are less prone to influence. Taking this feature of power, many organisations have changed their performance evaluation system, from evaluation by the immediate superior to 360-degree appraisal in which task performer, his superior, his peers, and outsiders interacting with him participate, and performance evaluation becomes more fair and objective.

iv. Organisational Culture

Organisational culture is the set of assumptions, beliefs, values, and norms that are commonly shared by organisational members. Organisational culture is, perhaps, the most important factor that affects management practices including power relationship among organisational members. Every organisation sets it’s culture, either explicitly or implicitly to be identified by the behaviour of people, more particularly those who are at higher levels. In a high-performing culture characterised by preserving core ideology; stimulating progress through challenging objectives; encouraging experimentation; and creating alignment by translating core values into management practices, positional power becomes less effective and personal power becomes more effective; people refrain from organisational politics to gain more power. In a low-performing culture characterised by maintaining status Quo, rigid organisational processes and rules, and centralised decision-making process, positional power becomes more important and, often, people remain engaged in organisational politics to gain more power. Therefore, those who are not in a position to play politics are prone to power influence.
Depending on the nature of various contingent factors—agent’s characteristics, target’s characteristics, and organisational characteristics, the target’s reaction to a particular power will be resistance, obedience, compliance, conformity, and commitment .

Tactics to Gain Power

Researchers have made attempt to identify the tactics that are used to gain more power. Some analysts have focused their attention on analytical approaches for gaining power while many others have suggested tactics only from practical point of view in which cause-effect relationship cannot be established easily. Some common tactics are explained below. Some of these tactics allow cooperation and sharing among individuals and groups; others are more competitive and increase the power of one at the cost of others.
i. Creating and Managing Uncertainties
Perrow has suggested that the person who can create a fiction of uncertainties and steer the organisation into areas of uncertainties that the person seeking power can manage will gain power.19 Uncertainty may be defined as a lack of information about future events so that alternatives and their outcomes cannot be predicted. The power seeker may manipulate, filter, or withhold the information in his possession and may create the fiction of uncertainty.
ii. Norm of Reciprocity
Norm of reciprocity is based on the theory of social exchange in which two persons in a continuing relationship feel a strong obligation to repay their social debts to each other. In the organisational context, norm of reciprocity applies to a trade-off‘if you do something for me, I will do something for you’. When such a trade-off is successfully arranged, both parties get something they want. Thus, the parties are able to get power.
iii. Identification with Power Centres
The person can enjoy more power by identifying himself with power centres. Identification with powerful figures in the organisation can be achieved through developing rapport with them. This identification may be perceived as a source of power by others and they will share their problems with the power seeker.
iv. impression Management
Impression management is concerned with the protection of self-image by the person while intentionally affecting others’ assessment of him. Self-image of the person affects his attraction to others which helps him to gain more power. Some of the actions which may be required in impression management are sending nonverbal cues, using flattery, and doing favours for others.
v. Pressure Building
Pressure building tactics may be adopted by persons with high non-substitutability or group of people like trade unions to gain more power. However, building excessive pressure to gain power may be counter productive. In the case of a person, it may create bad impression about him which may affect his power relationship in the organisation. In .the case of a group, the organisation may resort to stern action like threat of lockout in response to threat of a strike. Therefore, pressure tactics should be used judiciously.
vi. Competition
Competition refers to the rivalry among competing parties to gain control over organisational resources which are limited by their nature. Each party tries to influence the criteria used for resource allocation, and each party tries to have the maximum. Thus, each party looks at its relative position vis-a-vis others and argues those criteria which are likely to fetch it more power.
vii. Coalition
Coalition refers to combination of two or more persons, groups, or organisations for common goal. Coalition is generally used to gain more power. Thus, in the organisational context, power seekers may form coalition or temporary alliance to gain more power.
viii. Cooptation
Cooptation occurs when a group gives some of its important positions to members of other groups or includes them in its policy-making committees. This is done to avoid threats of criticisms or retaliation by others. In this way, the group is able to control more power.

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