Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Power Source Pecking Order - How Influencial is Each Source of Power?

Throughout the last several months, few topics have received more concentrated press coverage than health care reform - and no doubt this coverage is warranted and necessary due to the implications of any such reform - or lack of reform, depending on whom you ask. In the context of our recent discussion of sources of power, it seemed interesting to consider what sorts of power are at play in this debate.

In a recent WSJ opinion article, David Rivkin and Lee Casey describe the Federal mandates that characterize the plans put forward so far for health-care reform as "profoundly unconstitutional." Their article mentions the Baucus Bill specifically as an example, stating that "[under Baucus' plan] people who do not maintain health insurance for themselves and their families would be forced to pay an 'excise tax' of up to $1,500 per year" (Rivkin and Casey). The objection here has to do with the limits of Congress’ power:

“Taxation can favor one industry or course of action over another, but a ‘tax’ that falls exclusively on anyone who is uninsured is a penalty beyond Congress's authority. If the rule were otherwise, Congress could evade all constitutional limits by ‘taxing’ anyone who doesn't follow an order of any kind—whether to obtain health-care insurance, or to join a health club, or exercise regularly, or even eat your vegetables.”

Now my goal in this post is not to promote my personal opinions regarding health-care reform, but to identify and attempt to qualify the sources of power at play. Rivkin and Casey were attorneys for Bush Sr.’s administration and often contribute collaboratively to the National Review. Given their former occupations, I believe it is fair to assign Legitimate Power to Rivkin and Casey, and, depending on your own particular perspective, Expert Power is most likely in order as well. Although they do not currently hold office, I think that high-level attorneys do hold a level of authority granted by their position and thus Legitimate Power is a fair assignment, and no doubt they are entrenched in the matter enough to be called experts.

What is interesting about Legitimate and Expert sources of power is that they have allowed Rivkin and Casey to make a significant impact on the current conversation regarding health-care reform. I am not certain that these two were the first to describe the aforementioned mandates as a unconstitutional taxation, but they have no doubt taken strides towards unifying the argument and presenting it in fairly accessible terms. Furthermore, the conclusion of their argument has taken center stage in the health-care debate. This seems to be the advantage of Legitimate Power and Expert Power – the conclusions drawn by those with such power will not only be accepted – if they are to be accepted at all – but propagated as well, even enthusiastically.

So what about the other sources of power? Again, not taking sides. On Sunday (9/20), President Obama set the record for number of Presidential television appearances in a day by conducting five interviews on major television networks. Obviously President Obama has Legitimate Power, and, in similar terms as was discussed with Rivkin and Casey, it would be unfair to withhold from him the possession of Expert Power. In addition to these sources of power, though, President Obama has made an additional appeal to Referent Power. Using relaxed and at times vernacular phrasing, President Obama’s interviews, in my opinion, have reinforced his face and voice as representative of health-care reform. What is the result of this appeal to Referent Power? Some say his appearances were “too much too late,” to win over any new hearts, but I also think it is important to note that for those who are convinced by his call and plan for reform, the use of Referent Power most likely would solidify previously held beliefs on the matter. Would Referent Power be enough to change the character of a national conversation? I am not sure, but in this case, I am inclined to say not so much as would Legitimate and Expert power.

So where do Coercive and Reward Power play into the debate? I think they likely exist mainly on the fringes, such as with extremists touting the great rewards of... whatever they support; fill in the blank. The same is true of coercive power – extremists would likely tell of the horrible and inevitable consequences of conducting - or not conducting - health-care reform. Granted, no political pundit actually has at his or her disposal any degree of actual reward or coercive power (perhaps that raises another question: Does describing the result of an appeal to power, even if that power is not actually possessed, in some way qualify as an authentic appeal to that power source?), but if these appeals to power sources can be considered legitimate, I think that far left and far right pundits alike are the only few who make any real attempts at them. Do you consider anything that the more mainstream sources have said so far to be an appeal directly to reward or coercive power?

I have just argued for the existence of a hierarchy of Power Sources, but as a final note, I think it is worth mentioning that like so much of what we have discussed in Leadership Theory and Behavior, situation matters. I think there probably is some form of pecking order when it comes to how persuasive certain appeals to sources of power can be, but that order must be inherently dependent on the circumstances of the appeal. Whereas Legitimate and Expert Power may afford the greatest influence in the health-care reform debate, another situation, even another political issue, would no doubt call for an appeal to one or several of the other sources of power.


  1. Mike--
    Thanks for applying these theories in a political setting. I'll be the first to admit that I am hardly politically minded. Still, I've had a question in my head all week that has continued to be raised as I read most of this week's blog posts: We keep mentioning that leadership is so often "situational" but I would love to have a conversation to discuss WHAT lines a situation needs to cross in order to make it an opportunity for leadership.

    Let me try to rephrase that. In this post, we have mentioned a "pecking order" and how in another political issue, another type of power may have more influence. What I would like to ask the class is what characteristics of a situation beg for leadership? At what point does a group of people cross from being successful without leadership to suddenly needing leadership?

    The geese post also suggested that maybe leadership is a "quality in all of us that if it is necessary, we can all step into a leadership position." But what makes leadership necessary in any given situation? Is it that people inherently don't want to do work, as stated in Theory X, and so someone needs to make them? Or is it just that as people, we are insecure and need to believe that someone has guidance and an answer?

    We are familiar with the Leadership Trait Theory, but could we also create a Situational Trait Theory, in which we define the traits of a leadership-needing situation? I think if we did, it would be a never-ending list of "if this, then that" statements, but it might be worth exploring. These are just some thoughts I've been having!

  2. I think you're right that more expert power is needed in the case of healthcare reform. But as we talked about recently, the people with the real expert power when it comes to healthcare may not, unfortunately, even be the ones who are able to drive the decision.
    I like the idea that a good leader is aware of what power strategies are available for his/her use, and is able to select the right one, or combination, for each situation or challenge.

  3. Thanks for your interesting post, Mike.

    You raised an interesting question – is there a hierarchy for the Bases of Power? I was intrigued by this question so I did a little research on the topic and found an interesting research study conducted by Podsakoff & Schriesheim (“Field Studies of French and Raven’s Bases of Power: Critique, Reanalysis, and Suggestions for Future Research,” Psychological Bulletin) that explored this question.

    Interestingly, their research indicates that referent power and expert power are the most effective. Both expert and reward power were shown to be positively related to employees’ satisfaction with management, their organizational commitment, and their job performance, whereas reward and legitimate power were shown to be unrelated to these positive outcomes. They also found that coercive power has the opposite effect in that it is negatively related to employee satisfaction and organizational commitment. This seems to align with the hierarchy of power sources you proposed in your post!

    As Alanna said in her comment, I agree that expert power is the most crucial power base in the healthcare reform debate. Unfortunately, the issue has become a political one, which, naturally, seems to assign more weight to referent power than expert power.

  4. Kristen,

    That's an interesting research you brought up and it makes sense. So let me recap and make sure we're on the same page:

    Most effective:
    referent and expert power

    Moderate effectiveness:
    legitimate and reward power

    Least effective:
    coercive power (duh!)

    I think it has to do with how willing the follower is to hand authority to the power-holder. For expert and referent power, the follower believes the power-holder deserves the authority.

    For legitimate and reward power, the follower hands it over because they are supposed to or the power-holder had to somehow bargain with them. So to clarify:

    *Most effective - expert/referent power
    "You give me authority because you trust me and respect me."
    "You give me authority because you think I know what I'm doing."
    --much more convincing than--

    Moderate effectiveness: legitimate/reward power
    -legitimate: "You give me authority because you are supposed to." (That doesn't get me as excited because I am striving to be an effective follower, not a sheep.)

    -reward: "I will bargain with you since you will really don't believe in what I am doing. So let's make a deal. I scratch your back and you scratch mine."

    Least effective: coercive power
    -"I lack the ability to win you over, you won't give me authority, so I will take authority from you. Mwah-ha-ha-ha."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.