Tuesday, May 10, 2011



The two essential entities that flow between the human elements of an organisation are information and power.

Information flow is a means of communication whereas power is an instrument of control.

Viewed from a Systems perspective, information flow is the transformation process, which facilitates decision making, in contrast to the flow of power, which is a control process whose objective is to ensure optimal operational performance.

Organisations are arrangements of power among individuals. In fact, as per one definition, an organisation comprises two or more persons interacting within a recognised power relationship for some common purpose. The interplay of power enables the achievement of common purpose (organisational objectives) and determines organisational behaviour.

Before we study the effect of power on organisational behaviour, it may be apt to take a closer look at the phenomenon we call POWER, in particular INTERPERSONAL POWER.

Interpersonal Power is the kind of power that people have over one another in formal and informal situations.

The various forms of power may be categorised into one or more of the following categories, some of which may be inter-dependent, or overlapping, and even forming power equations:


In many situations, particularly in organisations, many of the above forms of power are inextricably intertwined and mutually interdependent.

In fact, that is the beauty of the dynamics of the interplay of power within an organisation, which is why we will discuss the effects of the above types of power on organisational behaviour.

Now let us explore how this fascinating phenomenon called power impacts and determines organisational behaviour and elaborate a bit on each of the various forms of Power listed above.


Position Power or legitimate power is the power that emanates from the rights of the holder of a position in the organisation owing to the deference of subordinates to that position. Position Power is vested in the leader by the organisation. This means that should a conflict arise between the leader and the follower, the leader will get his way. It is this type of power that is most open to abuse, misuse and distortion.


According to Alvin Toffler, in his book Powershift, the three important sources of power are violence, wealth and knowledge. He also says that power is the reciprocal of desire, or needs. Anyone who can fulfil (or withhold) your needs or desires is a potential source of power. Thus, if you desire a promotion, your boss who can give (or deny) you the promotion has power over you. If you need money, the person who can give you money has influential power over you. The more your needs and desires, the more you are subject to influential power.

Influential Power or compensatory power is the power over rewards and resources.

For example, money or wealth is an instrument of influential power. Satisfaction of needs (Maslow’s Need Hierarchy) including higher order needs of safety, belongingness, recognition and self-esteem through actions like grant of wage hikes, bonuses, increments, incentives, awards, promotions, and simple intangibles like just “a pat on the back” are typical examples of influential power.


Coercive Power is an instrument of punishment. Denial of legitimate needs, dismissal, demotion, unwarranted “punishments” like vindictive transfers and other forms of harassment are some commonly observed examples of coercive power. If these “punishments” are actually implemented and imposed, then it is called Actual Coercion but even the mere threat and power to impose these coercive punishments is a potent form of power and is called Implied Coercion. (There is saying that sometimes the threat of violence is sometimes more scary than actual violence, so implied coercion can sometimes be quite effective). The extreme cases of coercive power include the power of raw force (physical assault or harm to life and limb) and implied or threat of force (power of applied pressure).

In most cases, influential power and coercive power have linkages with and may emanate from position power and rely on sources of wealth and violence (the “carrot and stick” approach)


Expert Power is probably the only power that a lower ranking employee in an organisation can exert over those above him in the hierarchy or higher than him in rank or position. The source of Expert Power is knowledge. It is the power devolved to a person who is regarded as possessing essential knowledge, skills, abilities, or expertise needed by the boss and the organisation. If we look around we will see lots of examples of expert power especially in the technical domain and in Information Technology, where certain “key” employees wield expert power which is much more vis-à-vis their position in the organisational hierarchy.

One must remember that expert power lasts as long as the expertise is uniquely consolidated in the employee and adds value and is required by the organisation.  Once a particular knowledge or expertise dissipates or becomes obsolete or redundant, the expert power that comes with that expertise disappears.


A network of people who form an organisation or group may collectively radiate power. Organisations like the army, civil service, and police wield immense power and so do large industrial and political organisations. Other examples are Union Organisations, Employers’ Associations and Confederations of Industries.

Organisation Power may exhibit similar attributes like position power, influential power and coercive power relying on the sources of wealth and violence for sustenance.


Charismatic Power is a type of power attached to an individual. Charismatic Power emanates from personality and plays an important role in organisations. In situations when two persons with equal position power (peers) interact, we observe that one person tends to get his way more often than the other. This type of power that enables one peer to get his way during an interaction is called charismatic power or personal power.

The key factors that determine charismatic power are:

1. Self Image – How you view yourself

2. Peer Image – How you view your peer (power inferior, power equal or power superior)

3. Feedback Factor – How you read the power play in the interaction

4. Situation Image – How expertise pertaining to a certain situation determines the power equation. (e.g. Situational Expert Power)


Assumed Power is illegitimate position power (authority without accountability). Examples include personal staff to high officials, low level functionaries in important government departments, etc. In general, any person who can deny, withhold, delay or fulfil your needs or desires has the potential to assume power over you.


Powerlessness may cause frustration and, in extreme cases, lead to desperation, which may trigger off attempts to usurp power (e.g. –  Military Coup, Hostile Takeover of Companies, etc) Power may be usurped by an individual or group and then maintained by force, coercion, influence, charisma or combinations thereof. Look within your own organisation – a discerning look may reveal many overt, covert and subtle forms of assumed and usurped power.

To start with, I will relate below a story, maybe apocryphal, which illustrates the concept of ASCETIC POWER.

Alexander the Great, the emperor of the world, who had conquered all lands and seas and considered himself the “son of a god” and before whom all knelt in veneration and reverence, one day early in the morning, was riding with his army through Greece.

Suddenly he saw a man lying naked in the sand by the side of a river basking in the early morning sunlight.

Curious, Alexander rode towards the naked man. The man who was basking in the sun seemed to be totally indifferent to the distinguished visitor and his entourage.

The naked man remained prostrate and made no attempt to get up. He ignored the Emperor Alexander the Great sitting majestically on his horse.

An angry soldier shouted at the naked man, “You there – do you know in whose presence you are?”

“Who is he?” the prostrate man answered lazily, without the stir, making no move to get up.

The astonished soldier proclaimed, “Wretched man, you are in the presence of His Exalted Highness Alexander the Great – Emperor of the World.”

“Oh,” the naked sunbather said impassively, continuing to lie down. He casually looked up at Alexander the Great mounted imposingly on his horse and said, “I am Diogenes.”

“Ah, so you are the philosopher Diogenes!” Alexander exclaimed, “I have always wanted to meet you – I have heard so many stories about you. Diogenes, I am impressed. I will grant you anything you wish. What do you desire? Diogenes, ask for anything in the world and it will be yours.”

Still lying prostrate on the sand, Diogenes said to Alexander, “Please could you move a little to the side and get out of my sunlight, because you are blocking the sun and spoiling my sunbath. That’s all I want from you…” 

Power is the reciprocal of desire. If I desire something from you, then you have the power to either grant or withhold what I desire from me. If I do not desire anything from you, then you have no power over me. A desire can be anything, tangible or even intangible, like love, appreciation etc. 

In his time, Alexander the Great was the most "powerful" man on earth, but he had no power over Diogenes, because Diogenes did not desire anything from him.

This story illustrates the fact that
you cannot have power over someone who desires nothing from you. That is Ascetic Power. Look closely and you will see it around you, maybe even in your organisation too. 


Each person, because of his life experiences, develops a characteristic way of behaving when he has power over another. This is what we call leadership style.

Each of us has a characteristic way of reacting to those we recognise as having power over us. This is called followership style.

Leadership and followership styles may embody situational and cultural aspects. Different types of power have varied connotations in different cultures. In some parts of the world (and organisations) position power may be of prime importance whereas in some others charismatic power may prevail or maybe in some organisations expert power may be given more recognition. With increasing globalisation, these aspects merit consideration in determining power equations in multinational and multicultural organisations.


Like all resources, power is susceptible to misuse.

Power corrupts, and to quote Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Let us see, in the organisational scenario, what power does to people and discuss the process by which managers may get corrupted by the acquisition of power.

This process of corruption due to power is a four-stage process and the sequence seems to be quite consistent:


After you acquire power, especially position power, say after a promotion to a senior position like CEO, first, there is surprise at how quickly erstwhile peers or equals change their behaviour towards you. There is a distancing process. You can no longer be “one of the boys”. Your privileges increase – after all Rank has its Privileges. At this stage you begin to experience that power is like an aphrodisiac.


The second phase is a feeling of excitement, of recognition that when you, as the new leader, use your power to make a decision, your decision is both sought after and gratefully received. This develops into strong feelings of self-worth and you have a feeling of doing something worthwhile. You have a feeling of importance owing to the satisfaction of the inner need for significance.


The third phase is the one most likely to begin the process of corruption. It is feeling of potency. You, as a powerbroker, start to understand how much power and concomitant resources you can employ in order to amplify your own person, role and achievements. There is an accompanying feeling of isolation. The “leader”, possessing power, becomes inexorably drawn away from the subject (follower or victim) of his power and is tempted to feel bigger for it.

In the final phase, there is a split. In this stage, persons possessing power behave in two distinct ways.

If you are a prudent manager or leader you will begin to realise the negative aspects of power. You will sense the reactions of your subordinates and peers in the organisation to the power equations and accordingly you will evaluate the situation and respond in a positive manner by appropriate delegation of power in order to empower your subordinates, or at least generate a feeling of empowerment among them.

If you are one of those indisputable ambitious power seekers you will begin to believe that power is something that you can now command because of who you are. 

You take your power for granted and begin to believe that your own identity is of prime importance as compared to those you lead (followers). 

You create defences against potential attack by peers and subordinates and other you imagine who want to grab your power. 

You will surround yourself with reinforcements (siege mentality). 

Finally, like Nero, Hitler and many other tyrants and totalitarian rulers, autocrats, despots and dictators, you will start having illusions of your own glory and ignore the reality of the situation and signs of your impending doom.

In extremis, all those who hold on to power risk turning into paranoids and megalomaniacs like the ones we read about in history books, including the corporate world.


The advent of the information age and knowledge worker and fast changing business environment and flatter organizational structure owing to proliferation of information technology and implementation of modern management practices and consequent dynamic changes in traditional power equations necessitate an understanding of the different kinds of power relationships in organisational situations and their impact on organisational behaviour.

It is, indeed, vital to recognise that power is a key resource which must be prudently managed so as to minimise power conflict for the good of the individuals involved and the organisation to which they belong.

I will end with another quote from Lord Acton:

... And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely...Lord Acton


Copyright © Vikram Karve 2011
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

About Vikram Karve

A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer. Educated at IIT Delhi, ITBHU Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures(2008) and is currently working on his novel. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles in magazines and journals for many years before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for almost 14 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing. Vikram lives in Pune India with his family and muse - his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts. 

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Email: vikramkarve@sify.com          

Fiction Short Stories Book

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