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Submitted by Brian Hanks on



I am hoping some of the intelligent posters here can help me understand something regarding the different types of power. The question is this:
If role power is the least powerful form of power (compared to expert/referent/trust etc)in relationships and teams, why do teams with no clear leader struggle compared to teams with a manager or boss in charge?
The genesis of this question comes from a comment Mark made near the end of a recent MT podcast about the effectiveness of different forms of power, and a project I was recently involved in. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but Mark said something to the effect that the least powerful form of power in a relationship or team is role power. That got me thinking about a project I recently finished in my MBA program where a group of six MBAs, including myself, completed a seven-week consulting project for a Fortune 500 company in the Midwest. The project result overall was good, but the process and work leading up to the end were less than smooth. Freeriding occurred, deadlines were missed, team members skipped meetings with no real consequence other than diminished reputations. This was a result partially, I believe, because all six of us students were peers and no one was in charge of the entire group. No one had the role power to step up and say, “Okay, I’ve heard everyone’s opinion. Let’s go in X direction,” or “Joe, I need you to work this weekend to finish the analysis you said you’d have done by Friday.”
Think back to group work in school (or some other group without a clear leader). It seems to me that there is more of a free rider problem than in a workplace group with a boss who can fire someone. If role power is the least powerful form of power in relationships and teams, why is this the case?

430jan's picture

Wow, great question. I think that you will have lots of help here in gaining different perspectives. Mine?
My challenge to you in the question is “What is the difference between “powerful” and “effective”. A boss using the authority to fire someone as the motivation to propel them to work product will have long as they are in the room. Their given authority as “boss” may get others to shake and bake as long as they are watchful of every move. In this way role authority alone maybe powerful. But how about when they are not around? Then how does work get done? Does it move them ahead in their own search to have a meaningful work life? Believe me, they already know I am their boss and can fire them.

The more effective boss is able to develop relationships with staff. Not manipulative ones, but recognizing that we all have our gifts. Through one-on-ones we get to know the strengths and weaknesses of our staff. I have a person that is a great “relationship” person, but may not be so driven to make deadlines. That is important for me to know. Then I can delegate the work product, but make sure that my timelines are short and the work doesn’t get away from the individual.

Then I have a person that is driven to mark deadlines above all else, but they totally tick off the entire team. I have to lead them to understand how their demeanor slows down their actual work product because others are frightened of them, or just plain don’t have a desire to do their best for that project. Deadlines are not going to be the problem with them, relationships are.

There are times when I use my role power. Sometimes I use it in emergent situations when people are going to be hurt if I do not act swiftly. Sometimes I use it when others in the community are seeking to hurt my staff. (I am a nursing director and sometimes I have to talk with those that have unrealistic expectations of the nurses I supervise).  Frankly, sometimes I use it when I don’t have the time to explain every decision to a staff person. I’m the boss, I get to decide. But that is extremely rare.

I think that was being said in the podcast is that the boss that constantly uses the fact that they can fire their employee as leverage gets a staff that is uncreative, paralyzed by fear of doing the wrong thing, not openly communicating, playing “teacher’s pet”, etc. In a word, not producing their work effectively. The time that you are crazy busy is when you will find out if they truly will carry your water and do what needs to be done.

Finally, I believe that the people we deal with are valuable. I sincerely do. As a boss I am the chief operating SERVANT. They see me work hard, with compassion, they are likely to do the same. That is what I want. I want them to serve well, have a good life, enjoy their work by being effective in their role. Most people want that. If they don't, and they won't use the tools I give them to get better, then I sure do use my role power and build the case to get them on to another job.

Thanks for noticing the dynamics in your situation. I do believe that someone has to be in charge, but that happens anyway in a room full of humans! For better or worse!

jhack's picture

Role power is the weakest because it creates grudging compliance.  People do what they're told out of fear.  They don't believe in the value of their work, they don't believe they're doing the right thing, they don't want to help others they respect.  

Acting out of fear will achieve compliance in the short run.  But it will result in lackluster compliance, lack of initiative and engagement.  

The best motivator is one that engages the individual.  Folks work hard for people and missions they believe in.  Folks will be creative and take risks when they know that they're changing the world (or at least their industry).  

Role power is weak is another way:  it's implicit message is "I'll fire you."  But you either have to fire people, or they stop fearing the consequences.  Firing people is ineffective, demoralizine, costly, and counterproductive.  Smart folks will see that as weakness. 

Expert and relationship power, on the other  hand, engage people in the mission, and give them a reason to make a difference.  That's real power:  the power to motivate people!  

You stated "no one was in charge of the entire group."   I'll take that assertion as true.  Consider further that no one had expert power (since all were peers).  And it's likely that no one had relationship power.  So the power vacuum existed for all forms of power.  Trust me, if Ram Charan had been on the team, but had no power to fire anyone, you would have seen leadership and engagement.  

The free rider problem is an interesting one, and needs to be looked at on a case by case basis.  

John Hack

MsSunshine's picture

I'll throw in my two cents. 

In your work group case, I think the problem is that the team could have solved all of these problems without one person who was in charge.  A well functioning team is comfortable with challenging each other to do their best, asking each other for extra effort, questioning each other when something is going well, dealing with confrontational situation, etc.  A good boss helps a team become well functioning.  But I have been on peer groups that have functioned well because all the members were great at working to meet an objective as a team.

I do think that a good leader provides some things that a team cannot provide for itself - like a vision/goal.  Once I worked for a company where the president had no clear vision of where we were going and was ineffective at getting all the VPs to work together.  When he left, we got a new president who was great.  He had a clear vision that he executed to, held people accountable, etc.  It was like night and day within the first 3 months he got there.  But I don't think that "role power" had anything to do with why he was a good president. 

Finally, I'm now the manager of a team doing scrum.  I don't assign tasks.  I don't run projects.  I don't assign priorities.  I don't set deadline or delivery dates.  Scrum teams are striving for "self managing" working with product owners.  So, my role power could be seen as basically hiring, firing and reviews.  However, my real role is in influencing, giving feedback and coaching the team so they can move to being self managing.  I don't really feel like I have power.  But it does feel good to see the team slowly grow to working better together.


fchalif's picture
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Hi Hanks 1415,

"If role power is the least powerful form of power (compared to expert/referent/trust etc)in relationships and teams, why do teams with no clear leader struggle compared to teams with a manager or boss in charge? "

I suggest that a team does not necessarily struggle because it lacks someone in charge, but rather because it may lack a sense of purpose and or trust amongst its team members.

Purpose provides members with the reason for being there. It explains why they are there and what they need to be doing. This in some cases can be self-explanatory.

Trust is that gel that keeps people together and that can grow, contract, etc. over time through experience.

Both purpose and trust are to me more important than authority in making anyone more effective in achieving goals.I do not readily remember the various types of role power, but based on my experience where I have been led or have done the leading, I know that purpose and trust are far more effective than the wielding of power via authority. People may respond, but something is usually missing.

As I write this, an example with Manager-Tools comes to mind. My purpose coming to the site, reading the forums, listening to the podcasts, is to become a better manager. In the last 4 years I have now invested a significant amount of time with the community, I now trust that its contributions are hugely positive and help me to meet my objectives, or purpose. Now, Mark, Mike and the rest of the members have zero authority over me, yet I keep coming back for more. Pretty powerful stuff.....

Hope this helps.



Mark's picture
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I speak so much, and If I'm not careful and precise, I make things harder for everyone. I'm not sure I did so here, but I may have. I'd love to ask for a cite so I could hear myself be stupid (or right), but nevertheless:

First, I may have misled everyone by saying role power is least powerful.  I would be surprised if I said that...but I'll take your word for it.  I THINK what I meant is that true role power is rarely used, and because it is so rare relative to other types of power/influence, its total impact is less over time than the other forms.  Look, if you fire someone, THAT is role power, and it sure feels like the most powerful form of power to the recipient.  But really, how often do we fire people?

And remember that if I'm your boss but I never ORDER you to do something, but rather help you get motivated, I'm not using my role power, I'm using relationship power.  I HAVE one, I USE the other.

As to your question, let me be blunt and vulgar (without setting a precedent for others): teams suck.  Organizations far and wide have embraced the idea of teams and egalitarian structures with NO CONCEPT of the inherent problems contained therein. Your team didn't have a leader, and the number of leaderless teams I've seen succeed I can count on one hand.  It's too complex to describe here...but I'd bet some thought that someone OUGHT to be in charge, and the lack of LEADERSHIP - which is not necessarily the same as role power - led to your disappointing results.

Most of us aren't trained to be on teams without captains.  If you're asked to do so...beware.  It's like acupuncture - in theory supposedly great, but they still end up poking you with sharp things.

Human beings ALWAYS seek vertical structure.  Teams without leaders and/or role power don't provide it...and chaos ensues.  And when there is chaos, someone benefits.

tomas's picture

The problem with role power is that it decreases in effectiveness the more it is used, whereas other types of power tend to increase in effectiveness the more they are exercised.

Just imagine having a boss who constantly reminds you that they can fire you if you don't perform. The threat is going have less and less impact over time.

I would argue that teams fail without clear leadership because this causes the lack of a coherent vision. Simply having someone with role power isn't going to fix that.

singfiel's picture

If role power is the least powerful form of power (compared to expert/referent/trust etc)in relationships and teams, why do teams with no clear leader struggle compared to teams with a manager or boss in charge?

I think the issue is the difference between the presence of role power versus its manifestation or application.

Role power almost has to be present for a group to work well together.  Mark's point about leaderless teams is a case in point.  The absence of anyone whom the group recognizes as having role power limits its effectiveness.  Mark often talks about managers having a bright, blinking light over their head which says, "Boss."  It's the presence of the "sign" that indicates the presence of role power in a given group.

To say that the application of role power is least effective assumes that role power is present.  That is, where someone has role power, the exercise of that power is the least effective of the various types of influence.


kima's picture
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Mark's comment "Teams without leaders and/or role power don't provide it...and chaos ensues. "  brought back memories of a funny (well, funny now, painful then) experience from many years ago. 

There were twenty of us, all part of a development effort reporting to a single manager.  Our manager put us into five teams of four.  All five teams struggled the first day or so and we went back to her and explained that our teams were leaderless and would she please appoint leaders.  Her response "I don't need to appoint leaders, the leaders will emerge."

All twenty people took that to be code for "show me how you can be the leader of your team and that will be rewarded" -- including, I'm embarassed to say, me. 

Chaos ensued.  Almost no work got done while twenty people tried to be in charge.  Six months later, they disbanded our lab. 

Not a shining moment but talk about learning the hard way - Ha!

PBeaney's picture

In my opinion its not which type of power is the most effective the key point is that relationship power is the most simple to increase and it is not affected by the situation you are trying to influence in. If you want to increase your role power you need to get a promotion. And in flatter organizations and in complex project teams the amount of role power you have can be questionable, especially if you have a multi disciplinary team which requires everyone’s skills to get a task done.

In the case of expertise power this can be weak also. Knowledge is easier to get than ever and in every different situation your expertise power varies. To increase expertise power you must carry out lengthy training and if your goal is to gain power then this is a fairly inefficient method of influence.

However relationship power can be leveraged in ever transaction and can be improved by going out for a coffee and engaging in effective communication.  That’s why I think is is the most effective way to gain power/ influence in an organization. And if you are a high I like me its the most fun also !!