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On Power and Influence

by João Miranda on Jun 23, 2014 |

At DevOpsDays Amsterdam, Mark Coleman asserted that organizations' cultural changes start with one person influencing another. He finds that Charles Handy's writings on power and influence help on understanding how an organizations works and how one can go on to change it.

Charles Handy, an Irish author/philosopher specializing in organizational behaviour and management, describes six sources of power in his Understanding Organizations book. They are the physical, resource, position, expert, personal and negative. Power gives influence over people. Charles Handy proposes six influence methods: physical, exchange, rules and procedures, persuasion, ecology, magnetism. In his book, Charles Handy writes that "influence is the process whereby A seeks to modify the attitudes or behaviour of B. Power is that which enables him to do it".

Sources of Power

Physical power is linked to force: if A is bigger and stronger than B, then A has power over B. Resource power occurs when A has something that B wants. Position power occurs when A is B's boss or, on a family setting, when A is B's parent. Expert power emanates from B's acknowledgment that A knows more in a given field. Personal power comes with charm and charisma: B just likes A. Negative power is peculiar. If B does not like A then he or she will, consciously or not, undermine A's efforts. Mark notes that one has different sources of power depending on context. It's important to understand which are available in any given situation.

Methods of Influence

The physical, and sometimes resource, sources of power give physical influence. The threat of the usage of force can make B do what A wants. As might be expected, it's not much seen in organizations outside prisons and similar settings.

Rules and procedures are a powerful method of influence, exercised through position or expert power sources. A influences B by stating that rules mandate some kind of behaviour for someone on B's positions. Rules are neutral, as they might allow or prohibit some behaviour. Rules and procedures can also be a way to minimize the number of ad-hoc decisions.

Exchange as a method of influence means that A gives something to B in exchange for some expected behaviour. All sources of power allow for some kind of exchange influence.

Persuasion is the most common first method of influence, though it's difficult to use without being contaminated by the other methods. It relies on the source of power for its effectiveness, as all the others. If one's source of power is position, then persuasion can be confused with rules and procedures.

While the previous four methods are explicit methods of influence, the last two are indirect. Ecology sets the conditions for behaviour, as it is the study of the relationship between an environment and its organism, in this case, people. The decision making process, the allocation of work, the structure of an office, the kit given to an employee - computer, chairs, even the free coffee - all influence behaviour. Both resource and position sources of power permit the usage of ecology as a method of influence.

Magnetism stems from personal or expert power. As in physics, A exerts an invisible pull on B. On a darker side demagogues or faith healers can exploit it. On a brighter side, A can inspire trust, respect or charm on B. Steve Jobs might be the epitome of magnetism.

Changing Culture Through Power and Influence

Mark Coleman started his research into this matters because he wanted to understand what culture means and how he could change it. CAMLS (Culture, Automation, Measurement, Lean and Sharing) is an acronym dear to the DevOps community. Mark finds that all the concepts except for "culture" are easy to understand and do. He has more trouble grasping culture, as many other people over time. He defines culture as "something we feel, an emerging form of behaviour of a group of people within a given context, which cannot be directly influenced".

Given his own definition of culture, Mark follows transitivity logic: if "behaviour influences culture" and "power influences behaviour" then "power influences culture". So it's important to understand power to be able to change culture. The audience commented that meaning is also critical to change culture: people need to understand and give meaning to something to embrace it.

An interesting conversation followed one exercise Mark did with the audience. For no clear reason, at the start the session he asked everyone to stand up and then stand down. At the end of the session, he told the audience that he had exercised power over it, although he could not classify which source of power he had. Someone in the audience suggested that it was not an exercise of power at all. People just have an initial dose of good will toward a stranger, like a starting credit in a bank account. That good will can be spent or reinforced. Yet another attendee explained it in a simpler way: people are just conditioned to behave like that in a conference session context. Education and social norms have a powerful effect.

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