The 8 Ultimate Sources of Power in Project Management

Sources of Power in Project Management

Share This Post

If you are a PM, you need to know the sources of power in project management. Sources of power help you understand how you interact with other people, how you can get things done – and how others can get you to do things. This guide is a good read for all project managers, or aspiring PMs.

Power in Project Management

Before we dive into the sources of power in project management, we should understand what power is. There are many definitions, but the one I like the most is “the ability to influence others”, for example to do things and complete tasks. This definition is the perfect idea of power in project management, because often project managers do not have full authority.

Simply put, a project manager must ensure a project is completed in the best way. For this to happen, several people will have to work on the project – but the project manager may have no authority over each and everyone. So, at least for some of them, the project manager must convince them to do the work. More precisely, she must influence them so that they actually want to do the work on their own.

With this important preface, it is clear that power is an important tool in project management. As a PM, you need to use it wisely, and understand how people can wield power over you. This guide about sources of power in project management may not tell you exactly what to do – that’s tricky – but it will give you the tools to understand power.

One more thing before we dive in: power is contextual, it depends on the relationship between people. It is not intrinsic in a person, but it merely depends on the relationship between the two. The CEO may be in the position of power over his employees, but when stopped by a police officer for a broken light in the car he is powerless – the officer has now more power.

The 8 Sources of Power in Project Management

A Model Based on Research

The 8 sources of power in project management you are about to see are based on extensive research. More specifically, they are the French-Raven framework for sources of power, originally defined in 1959 by two scholars: French, and Raven.

This framework has been expanded decade after decade as more research became available, growing from 5 to 8 sources of power in project management.

It is not like the actual sources of power have changed, or that the way power is wielded changed much over time. Instead, scholars identified more convenient ways to classify and categorize power, that better reflect geopolitical dilemmas and situations in the corporate world.

Most likely, no one will have power from just one source. Instead, he will obtain power from multiple sources – potentially all of them – but with a different extent from each.

Positional vs. Personal Power

We can classify the 8 sources of power in project management in two camps. On one side, we have positional power, while on the other we have personal power.

Positional power is the power you have by the position you hold. If you were to leave your role, anyone filling in after you will have the same positional power. A classic example of positional power is if you are “the boss” at work, and formally control your team. We find 4 different sources of power in project management that are all positional power.

Personal power is instead the power you carry by yourself. It is how people regard and respect you as an individual, what you know and what you can do. If you were to leave the organization and find another work, you will carry this power with you – or at least some of it. It does not have to do with the role in the organization, and since it is less formal you can start building personal power on your own, even today. In this camp, we find the 4 remaining sources of power in project management.

Sources of Power in Project Management Summary
A summary of the sources of power in Project Management.

Positional Power Sources in Project Management

Legitimate Power

We can start with the very basics. The first of our sources of power in project management is legitimate power, which was included in the original 1959 research by French-Raven.

Legitimate power is the power you have “by-the-book”. When you are appointed in a leadership position, legitimate power is what you get. People will understand you have power because they see the position you hold, and act accordingly. You are the boss, and you will be treated like one.

Of course, it is worth noting that even legitimate power can fade very quickly if you are unable to wield it. Put it simply: if you have to remind people you are the boss, then maybe you really aren’t. Fortunately, legitimate power gives you access to other positional power tools you can use to exert your influence over others.

If you want to learn more about legitimate power, here are some great examples.

So, we can see legitimate power as the expectation or fear others have about you exercising the other legitimate power tools. What are these tools? We will see them right now.

Reward Power

Reward power is the second of our sources of power in project management. Just like legitimate power, it is a positional power and was included in the original research.

Reward power means you can give people some reward, plain and simple. You may influence their bonus at the end of the year, their salary, give them extra vacations or time off, and so on. But rewards do not necessarily have to be as “real” as money or vacation days.

Reward Power is one of the sources of power in project management
Rewarding your employees is a form of exercising power.

A sincere praise can be a good reward, and you can also pull more sophisticated levers such as status or visibility, for example by bringing the person you want to reward to an important meeting or having them run the presentation.

Reward power in project management is a form of positional power, and it comes from legitimate power in some sense. In fact, it is because you have legitimate power that you are often able to provide tangible rewards such as salary increases. Yet, the ability to reward in the softer ways we discussed does not necessarily have to come from the position. You might earn this type of positional power because you are highly regarded: people will enjoy an honest praise from their senior and expert colleague.

Coercive Power

The other side of the coin of reward power is coercive power. Among the sources of power in project management, this is likely to be the one you want to use the least.

We say it is the other side of the coin of reward power because, instead of reward, you can impose punishments on people. It may be giving them a work shift they did not want to make, hold them back from a salary increase, remove them from a project, or even fire them. Also in this case, we have milder options like a complaint or a formal complaint.

Coercive power tends to ensure compliance in the short term, but it destroys morale. This is the reason you do not want to use it. People moving out of fear will eventually move away, or act in a dishonest way to avoid facing sanctions.

The ideal way to get the most out of coercive power is simply by having people understand that you are ready to use it when that is the only option that you have. For example, an error from overlooking something or being too lightheaded should not be punished with coercion. Instead, a mistake purposefully and intentionally placed by dishonest behavior should be.

Resource Power

Unlike the other three sources of power in project management under the positional power, resource power was not originally defined by French and Raven. It was added later, and some texts do not report it and stick to the original list.

Simply put, resource power is the ability to control resources that other people need. This may be more evident in the geopolitical chessboard than in corporate meeting rooms, but nonetheless it applies to all context – from politics to family life.

International diplomacy comes with many key examples. Russia, for example, provides oil and gas to Europe, and wield some resource power because of it. Ukraine, at least up until the last decade, had the major oil and gas pipelines from Russia to Europe passing in its territory. As such, it also had some resource power over both regions, having the possibility to shut down the supply (which it briefly did once).

Oil pipelines. Infrastrucutre is a form of resource power in international diplomacy, which is one of the sources of power in project management
Oil pipelines or even just oil can be used as a form of resource power.

We do not have to use international stakes all the time. Resource power can be as simple as a mom that owns the car the kid wants to drive. Or even, that he wants to be driven in to go somewhere.

In the corporate world, this often translates into having control over a budget or the effort of some people. Because of this, it is generally more effective to wield power over other entities (departments, suppliers etc.) rather than individual people.

Personal Power Sources in Project Management

Referent Power

If we talk about personal power, the first of the sources of power in project management that we should define is referent power. This power was defined by French and Raven in their original paper, and it is one of the most important personal power you can have.

Having referent power basically means that people believe in you. They associate you with something bigger than just yourself. You might be leading the team for a specific cause, and people will associate you with that cause.

To give you an example, Elon Musk is often associated with transition to green technologies and space exploration. Steve Jobs was associated with pursuing perfection – all causes that make people respect and follow their leader. In fact, people tend to respect and follow that leader even outside of the organization.

It is clear that referent power is one of the most influential types of power, so you should master it. Even better, you can start building your referent power yourself. To do that and understand it better, you should check this article about referent power with examples.

Expert Power

Expert power is self-explanatory. If you are the expert in a field, people will respect your judgment and follow your advice. So, mastering a specific technology or way of work, and becoming the go-to person for that topic will bring some expert power to you.

We see expert power in senior colleagues that often do not have formal leadership position. Yet, because they have a deep understanding of an important matter, they can quickly seize leadership. The clearest example of this type of expert power is a “guru” of something.

It is worth noting that expert power is a byproduct of high experience. As such, the effort you need to put to gain this power is not proportionate to the result. True, you will also gain immense expertise in something, but if power is what you are after, you may want to try referent power instead. Or, you may want to check the other sources of power in project management – just read on for them.

Information Power

In the list of legitimate sources of power in project management, we saw resource power. Information power is similar, but instead of controlling resources you control information.

Unlike resources, of which a person is officially entitled to control, information is blurrier. Even if you can formally gain access to some information, most of information is something you cannot get for entitlement. Instead, it is something you gain organically by listening in meetings, entering email communication threads, and talking with people. It is something you build gradually.

Information Power is one of the sources of power in project management
Information can be a source of power. Nowadays, it is mostly digital (or in your brain).

The more useful information you have, the more you can wield information power. People will seek that information from you, and they may need that information to pursue their projects and reach their objectives. In other words, if the information you hold is like a resource to other people, other people will tend to respect for you – increasing your power.

Even if people do not strictly need the information you have for their goals, or if they may get to it anyway eventually, people like to receive anticipations and be ahead, so if you are able to provide early information, your information power will increase.

Connection Power

Finally, we can turn to connection power. Unlike the other three personal power, connection power was not included in the original sources of power in project management by French and Raven. It was later added by other scholars in different research.

Just like information power, connection power is a type of informal resource power. Here, however, resources are not tangible resources, and they are not even information. Instead, they are connections to other people, the proverbial “it’s who you know”.

Much like other resources, people need to access other people to reach their goals. In the corporate world, they may also need that to further their career. If you know the right people, you clearly have an edge. This does not exclusively mean having connections high in the organization. It means knowing people at all levels, both inside and outside the organization. If you do, people will trust that if they turn to you, you can redirect them to the correct person.

Connection Power is one of the personal sources of power in project management
The node at the center has connection power over the three at the bottom-right because they can communicate only through him. The two nodes at the top can communicate directly, so there is no connection power to exert here.

Even better, the more people you know, the more you can combine them creating connections between them and generating more ideas and opportunity.

It is worth noting that connection power does not come exclusively from how many people you know. It comes from how many people you know that do not know each other. In other words, if you know Alice and Bob, but the two know each other, they will speak directly – you wield no power. Instead, if they do not know each other, they will have to turn to you to make at least their first contact. That is connection power.

Sources of Power in Project Management: A Summary

In this brief guide, we addressed the 6 sources of power in project management that you need to know to navigate complex organizations. To wrap them up:

  • Positional power – about your position:
    • Legitimate power – what is your role
    • Reward power – give rewards to people
    • Coercive power – give punishments to people
    • Resource power – control resources
  • Personal power – about you as a person
    • Referent power – what people associate you with
    • Expert power – what you can do and teach to others
    • Information power – what you know
    • Connection power – who you know

The key takeaway is this: sources of power in project management are not standalone items. Instead, you are likely to have a little piece of power coming from each source, and so is everyone else. Consider that when structuring your interactions with other people.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Join the Newsletter to Get Ahead

Revolutionary tips to get ahead with technology directly in your Inbox.

Alessandro Maggio

2021-06-24T16:30:00+00:00

Opportunity

Project Management

170