Why do we distinguish between power and influence? What is your power base and how is this influencing your influence tactics?

Using formal powers

Coercive and reward power provide the base from which someone could use exchange tactics. Given such obvious connections why do we distinguish between power and influence?  The reason is simple. Many managers today have power given to them by nature of their position, but they don’t use that.

They have coercive power, reward power and legitimate power, but when trying to get employees to work harder they work differently. Great managers may never draw on those formal powers. Instead they may opt for a soft tactic like sitting down and explaining why change or a measure is needed.

That’s rational persuasion, right?! Similarly, a manager who may have both expert and referent power, for some reasons may decide to use reward power via some exchange tactic.  That’s an option as well. In other words power and influence rely on each other but they are not synonymous.

Different power bases

Let me illustrate this by using a concrete example. Let’s imagine a manager who could use a whole host of power bases with his employees. We’ll call him Jim. I’ll play the role of the manager to show how different power bases play out with different tactics. The situation is that as the manager I have discovered that the company may lose a client to a competitor.

The client is Jim’s and I think he should be worried, so here’s what I say to him: “I just found out that your client Hensley Enterprises is unhappy and actively shopping around. Dammit Jim if you loose Hensley then you will be looking for work!”  As Jim’s formal supervisor I have course of reward and legitimate power basis.

In this case I leverage the coercive power based on my position and applied a pressure tactic trying to push Jim into action with the threat. And, note that there are other ways that I might push Jim into action, using power derived from my position. I might try a simple reference to my legitimate power.

“Jim I just found out that your client Hensley Enterprises is unhappy and actively shopping around. I’m clearing everything else off your plate for the next 48 hours. Get to work keeping the Hensley account.” Implicit in this statement is that “I’m a supervisor and I have power over your responsibilities and assignments”.

Positional power matters

And, there’s also a little bit of a pressure tactic here, but certainly gentler then the threat of firing.  I could also leverage my reward power here and say: “Jim I just found out that your client Hensley Enterprises is unhappy and actively shopping around. If you keep them on our books I’ll make sure it’s worth your while at bonus time.”

How effective do you think each of these three particular combinations of power bases and tactics would be? Having taught this material for years and having seen many young managers trying to connect power and influence tactics, I would say that each of these would move Jim into action.

In short, I would get compliance because I’m Jim’s supervisor. The firing threat, because it is so blatantly a pressure tactic that undermines the relationship between Jim and his boss, is more likely to generate resistance and create problems in the long run, but it may certainly work in the short run.

All of these situations have something in common: the power bases they depict. Coercive, reward and legitimate. They all derive from the agent’s job title and responsibilities. As a result, we refer to this group of power bases collectively as positional power, and when you are selecting influence tactic is important.

Selecting an influence tactic

You might want to consider whether you have the appropriate power base to use a particular tactic. Consider for a minute what would happen if one of Jim’s buddies, also a sales agent, was worried about the department’s bonus and wanted Jim to move quickly to save the account.

Picture him again. One of Jim’s buddies coming up to him and saying: “I just found out Hensley Enterprises is unhappy and actively shopping around. If you lose Hensley then you’ll be looking for work.”  This pressure tactic coming from a coworker rather than a boss would come across as odd. I can imagine Jim saying: “What are you talking about? First, how do you know about Hensley? And, second, are you threatening me?!”.

The awkwardness of this encounter shows how important it is to consider one’s power base before selecting an influence tactic. A mismatch between the two is at worst likely to create resistance, at best you just won’t be successful and you’ll give the people around you will laugh for the day.