It is said that Coco Chanel's famous designs never go out of style. The same is true of this famous take on the bases of power in organizations.
Recently I met a veteran of organization development field. He had been out of it for a few years and he asked me what was new. I talked about some of the work I've been doing lately and eventually our conversation came back around to power dynamics in organizations. Even today, you can't discuss that topic without visiting French & Raven's classic work from 1959. He was surprised to learn that this classic was still active in the toolkits of the new generation of consultants, but I assured him it is still quite relevant. There are new ideas, to be sure, but this seminal work that provides so much insight into "how the REAL work gets done" is one that rings true, even today.
The basic premise is that there is more than one kind of power in organizations, and that we would do well to look around to see what power is wielded outside of the corner office, and by whom.
There is the power you get when your name is placed atop the company's organization chart; it's formal. Your name is on the door. You call the shots. It's legit.
There is power that comes from being well-liked, or from being the founder's favorite nephew; you may not be in charge, but people want to please you.
There is power tied to being the undisputed expert in your field; it's what makes people take notes when you speak and do what you suggest because you know what you're talking about.
Power is also found in the ability to reward people, something professors tend to experience when extra credit is an option for students. Bosses exercise this type of power when handing out bonus checks too.
There is also power derived from the ability to punish people. I once knew a woman who was known for firing those who didn't see eye to eye with her. As the heads rolled (figuratively of course) she built her power base. People did whatever she wanted them to do out of fear. That's coercion, as everything she said was perceived to be followed by a silent, "...or else!"
Of course, today's knowledge workers understand informational power as currencyas well. Knowing something others need to know makes you powerful in your own right, no matter where you are on the organizational food chain.
Why does this taxonomy that predates my own existence by nearly a decade hold so much power for me as a consultant and a leader?
It all started at the US Naval Academy in 1990.
Yeah. That's me in the picture, but four years earlier.
I had just been commissioned and my older brother, a Lieutenant at the time, swore me in. He then excused my parents and stepped out of earshot with me to explain what it meant to be a good officer. He also explained to me that, since I had his name, I had better be a good one! (Coercive power, anyone?)
Then he told me how. He didn't quote French and Raven, but the guidance he gave me, in no uncertain terms, amounted to a direct order to work within the informal power structures of the Navy. The best officers, he told me, are more than the rank on their collars. They understand and respect the expertise of those in the enlisted ranks and build trust and respect so that people will still do the right thing when the division officer isn't looking. I used that advice to my benefit as an officer, then later in the aerospace and consulting industries, and I constantly use it today in my nonprofit and for profit leadership roles.
Some ideas are truly classic.
This is one I will always wear quite well.
PS- Thanks, Jerry Henderson! Now THAT was some brotherly advice!
French, J. R. P., & Raven, B. (1959). The Bases of Social Power. In W. E. Natemeyer & J. T. McMahon (Eds.), Classics of Organizational Behavior (Third ed., pp. 253-267). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.
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