Business WisdomEssay and ReflectionFeaturesShannon Bond

Mind your Business: Who has the Power?

by Shannon Bond

Have you ever thought about power? What is it, and how do people get it? Much like identity, power is a role we play, and it’s fluid and changes in each situation. And it depends entirely on who is playing which roles at the time. For example, a manager is only a manager if there are willing employees. In Zen and the Art of the Controlled Accident, Alan Watts says, “There is no teacher until a student arrives, no problem until a question is raised. So students create teachers.” So, what types of power roles are there? Let’s break down five types and their dynamics.


This is the power of position an organization, agency, or even a family grants. This is not a stable power and doesn’t follow the wielder. If you lose your job or change positions, you lose your power (or when your kids grow up and move out, your position has shifted). Simon Sinek famously tells the story of the high-ranking elected official who was honored one year during a conference, doted on, and shuttled from hotel to event. But the following year, he wasn’t even met at the airport, and when he arrived, he didn’t get the gourmet treatment; he got to retrieve his own coffee in a Styrofoam cup. In this case, the power followed the position, not the person.


Next, we have referent power, which is unofficial. It’s the power of charisma and personality. By its nature, this type of power is unearned and has the potential to lead down a darker path. It’s easy to lose sight of others’ needs when wielding charm to get what we want.


The third type of power is that of the expert. This one is easy to understand. We all know the IT guru in the office or the HR representative down the hall with all the nuanced regulatory answers. In general, this is a positive form of power as long as the one wielding it doesn’t withhold or manipulate people for their own gains or entertainment.


The fourth type is the power of reward. Simply put, if you are in a position to give or withhold rewards, you are wielding this power. This can be a very negative experience for those on the receiving end if the wielder is selfish, short-sighted, or vindictive. Often, managers and leaders don’t even realize when they are negatively wielding this power. Think about bonus time at work. Is there a fair, transparent process, or are those in charge tainted by bias or favoritism (known or unknown to themselves)?


And lastly, we have coercive power. Those who can punish or remove rights or perks operate in this zone. A good example is the bureaucratic process. Maybe you own a transportation business moving millions of dollars of cargo each month. It’s time to license a new truck after an old one broke. Time is critical. But maybe there is a single checkmark out of place or a minor error in a document that’s obviously administrative. It’s an easy fix or forgivable, but that one low-level official can hold up an entire company if they are in a bad mood.

So, how is this useful? In any situation, you have power, frequently more than one kind. Maybe you’re a manager with legitimate power who can give bonuses or take away break times when tight deadlines are looming. That’s three types right there! But it’s not that simple because you’re surrounded by others with different kinds of power in any situation. It’s always fluid and dynamic.

If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. Think about how you interact with them and what kind of power each of you wields. How has it changed over time? Is it legitimate, coercive, or referent? It may be all three at the same time. But which type will help you build more respect and appreciation? Do you often catch yourself holding back allowance or threatening to cancel a sleepover to get them to do what you want? If so, how will that affect your relationship now and in the future? To gain mastery of yourself and keep relationships positive, simply understanding the types of power you and others wield and evaluating the situation and players will propel your ability to get results and build positive relationships.

So tomorrow, as you shuffle from meeting to meeting (or activity to activity with the kiddos), pay attention to how the power shifts in each situation. You never know; you may find new ways to influence outcomes or gain new insight and empathy for those on the receiving end.

Sign up for Joe Mail 👋

Sign up to get all the coolest local stories each month.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Barbosa's Restaurant