Who is making your boss powerful?

Probably you! Can’t believe? Let’s see why and how? Let’s begin by defining power. Power is the ability of a person to influence others to do certain things, willingly or unwillingly.

We often hear comments like, “Such and such person is a powerful man or a powerful woman.” Is power a personal attribute? Are there some personal characteristics that make some people more powerful than others?

While it seems likely, ‘power’ is not a personal attribute; it’s a relational attribute. Think of an example, my boss is likely to have lot of power over me (at least in workplace). I would try and execute work as per his guidelines. But, what happens once he moves out of the organization? Or if I change jobs? His power over me will reduce drastically (while the new boss takes over the more powerful position). Thus, my boss will have power over me as long as he remains my boss!

He has power over me, because he can facilitate or deny certain needs of mine like increment, promotion, career growth, rewards etc. As I am dependent on my boss for meeting these needs, he can exercise power over me. Higher my longing for these needs, higher the power my boss would have over me. Lower my ability to satisfy these needs through another source (like another job or alternate source of income, or alternate source of satisfaction), the higher the power he will have over me. Thus, the basis of power is not a personal characteristic of my boss, but my dependence on him. This has been proposed by Emerson in dependency theory.

Dependence acts as the basis for power in most situations. Consider the relationship between a parent and child. As long as the child is dependent on the parent for meeting various needs, the child would listen to the parent (at least to some extent). With age, the dependence reduces, rebellion begins and the spiral continues. It even reaches a stage, where the role reversal happens: the parents are dependent on the child and the power has changed hands!

Think of another transactional example. You are stranded in an unknown place late in the evening. You are waiting for a taxi, after 15-20 minutes you see one driving your way. But the taxi driver asks for four times the normal price, what will you do? You are dependent on him at that point of time, so he exercises power over you and charges higher amount.

So, what does power dependence mean to professionals striving to be professionally successful? How can we use this understanding to reduce other’s ability to exercise power? Following are a couple of thoughts, that are not easy to implement, but worth considering:

  • Manage personal needs, contain them – if I get used to certain lifestyle that is largely dependent on the income from my current job, chances of my becoming vulnerable to power increases.
  • Create alternate sources to satisfy needs – be it alternate jobs or career options or growth plans, alternate sources of income, alternate means to get recognition or appreciation or whatever that helps meet your important needs.
  • Continuously sharpen your skills and capabilities, keep them relevant – which in turn will help create alternate sources for satisfying needs and reducing dependence.

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