Power dynamics are present in every team, and it’s important that leaders are aware of them. A common misconception is that the leader always has the most power within a team.
While a leader usually has *some* power, it’s not always that simple.
I sometimes speak to leaders who think that when they are promoted and achieve a greater level of seniority in the organisation, their problems will miraculously disappear.
Often the opposite is the case, with the problems becoming even more complex.
Why Should You Care About Power Dynamics?
Power dynamics can have a dramatic effect on the functioning of a team.
The better understanding you have of the types of power at play, the better you’ll be able to adjust your leadership and potentially the way your team is designed.
Team power dynamics can have an impact on your ability to:
- Make change within your team, and have your people support it
- Hold people accountable for their performance; and
- Lead effectively, to have people want to follow you.
In this article, I’m going to take a look at three types of power that I find the most useful to understand when leading.
Hopefully you’ll be able to see some of these in your team, and potentially adjust your approach to cater for any imbalances that may occur.
Learn More: 3 Simple Ways to Influence Change in Your Team.
3 Types of Power to Consider In Your Team
Let’s take a look at some of the different types of power, and how they might play into the power dynamics within your team.
1. Legitimate or Formal Power
Legitimate power is the type of power you get when you occupy a position of authority. As a leader, you probably have at least some of this type of power from the role you play.
In your leadership role, you likely have the ability to set budgets, decide who to hire, set performance targets and hold people accountable to them.
These all come from your legitimate power. The degree of legitimate power you have will depend on your role and the different responsibilities you hold.
Your team members will generally have less of this type of power than you do, and your boss will likely have more of it.
Legitimate power often gives you the ability to provide or withhold rewards in your team, too.
Sometimes this is referred to as “reward power”, but I include it with legitimate power because I find that usually the ability to provide rewards goes hand in hand with a formal leadership role.
Legitimate power is part of the reason why your people will do what you tell them to. If you give someone a task who is not in your team, there is often some other form of power at play for them to take it on.
Legitimate power is the most commonly regarded type of power, that everyone knows about. The next two are where the real fun starts!
2. Expert Power
Expert power is very common within teams and organisations. It comes from somebody being an “expert” in what they do, or what they know.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to have a PhD or be some sort of genius. It simply means that they know how to do something better than other people can.
The time when expert power is at its strongest is when someone knows how to do something that nobody else in your team or organisation can do.
When I was working in the technology industry, I would often come across people who understood parts of software systems that nobody else knew anything about. This meant that these people had strong expert power, because they were the only source of expertise within that particular area.
It’s not all about technology though. It can be about having specific skills and knowledge in any domain.
How Does Expert Power Change Power Dynamics?
Let’s use an example. You have an accountant in your company who does all the financial reporting, and understands all the tax rules and various other aspects impacting the organisation.
Let’s also assume there is only one of them.
If they were to leave your organisation, you might be in trouble, at least in the short term until someone else can come and help you.
The accountant knows this, so they demand a pay rise and other benefits if they are to stay with you. Before long, they are holding you to ransom.
But I won’t pick on accounting. It could be the same situation in any field.
Expert power can create a power dynamic where a leader feels compelled to do what the expert wants, for fear of them leaving, or becoming unhappy.
3. Referent Power
Referent power is perhaps the most interesting type of power. It refers to the ability of a person to influence others.
Leaders who have a high degree of referent power are influential and most probably well-connected. This allows them to influence people even when they don’t have direct authority over them.
An Example of Referent Power From My Career
During my leadership career I ran a lot of projects, often as a consultant or contractor. As a project or program manager, I had to get people to do project work, even though they often didn’t report directly to me.
Most of these people already had day jobs, so the project was just another thing clogging up their task list.
This situation meant I had little legitimate power, so I could never rely on that. So what did I do?
Well, I built relationships with people who did have a lot of power, in particular the Program or Project Sponsor. The sponsor is the senior person who is accountable for the project overall, and makes key decisions about what happens.
The people in the organisation knew that I talked to the sponsor often. So, they knew that if they didn’t do the project work, the sponsor would find out and they might be in the bad books.
This is a good example of referent power.
How Referent Power Impacts Power Dynamics
Most commonly, I find that referent power shows up because of personal relationships in the workplace.
In complex organisations people have relationships with people outside of their own team. Some of your team members might even have a great relationship with your own boss.
Or perhaps, one of your people is the brother-in-law of the CEO. Whatever the case, referent power can make leadership tricky because it can undermine the legitimate power of your role.
Imagine trying to hold a team member accountable who is best friends with your boss. You have legitimate power in your role, but your team member has a high degree of referent power.
This can create a complicated power dynamic and have leaders feeling demotivated because they feel they can’t take the actions they need to in their team.
How to Improve the Power Dynamics In Your Team
Now that we have an overview of the different types of power that might be at play in your team, let’s take a look at what we can do about them.
The idea here is not to try to remove all sources of power from your team members. Instead, it is to weaken or dilute them, so they don’t stop you from doing what you need to do as a leader.
Nothing makes a leader feel more helpless than being unable to take action because of a huge power imbalance within their team.
How to Deal With an Expert Power Dynamic
Some simple ways to deal with an imbalance caused by expert power include:
- Cross-skilling: Cross-skilling means training up other people in your team, to remove a “single point of failure“. The more other people understand how to do what the “expert” can do, the less power the expert has.
- Dual roles: Sometimes it makes sense to have multiple people playing a similar role, rather than just one. This means you have a backup option available, potentially reducing the expert power dynamic at play.
- Taking it outside: External consultants or contractors can also act as backups to your in-house experts. However, this only works when they know your environment, so think about potentially letting them take on projects to become familiar with how you work.
Note that when you try to tackle an expert power problem, you may ruffle some feathers. Your expert may sense that they’ll lose power, meaning that they may resist the changes you’re making.
How to Deal With a Referent Power Dynamic
To deal with a power imbalance caused by referent power, you can try the following:
- Building relevant relationships: If you can build a relationship where you can influence a key stakeholder, then the referent power of others will be reduced. A strong network helps you to remain connected and can defuse strong referent power relationships.
- Focus on the WIFM: If you’re struggling to take action in your team because of a referent power imbalance, be clear on the “What’s in it for me?” for the people you need to influence. If you can convince your key stakeholder that your action has real implications, you’ll have a better chance of diluting this referent power.
Personal relationships can be one of the trickiest causes of power imbalances within a team. Building a strong network and understanding what your key stakeholders need are perhaps the best tools to improve the situation.
Trust and Power
I write quite a lot about trust, because it’s such an important part of leadership. So the question must be asked – how does trust factor into power dynamics?
In my view, trust is useful because it reduces the chances that people will exercise their power against you, and reduces the resistance to your legitimate power.
For example, if your people trust you, they are less likely to talk to their best friend who happens to be the CEO (referent power) to stop what you’re trying to do.
Your resident expert is less likely to hold you to ransom if they believe you have their best interests at heart.
And your people are much more likely to follow your lead and do what you say if they trust you. This means that the legitimate power from your role is at its strongest.
Trust is a fantastic way to help sway the power balance in your favour, so make it a priority to build it!
Learn More: Start Being Trustworthy For Your Team: Here’s How.
It’s certainly not easy dealing with an imbalance in power dynamics, but failing to address these issues can cause huge problems for leaders who are trying to make change.
It’s time to take the power back!
Have you had an issue with power dynamics in your team? What did you do about it? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!