What Makes a Person Powerful in an Organization?
by Kai-Lit Phua, Ph.D.

"Office politics" is a fact of life for anyone who works in a formal organization such as a commercial company. The term "office politics" is strongly associated with words such as "competition" (as in competition for promotions, resources and recognition) and "power" (as in the exercise of power and also the abuse of power!). Power is an important concept but it is hard to define and to measure.

The German sociologist Max Weber defined power as the ability to get things done your way in spite of the resistance of others. Thus, the more powerful a person is within a formal organization, the more often he or she is able to get things done his or her way. Weber also defined "authority" as legitimate power, i.e., power and the exercise of power that is recognized as being legitimate and proper by subordinates.

In turn, he classified authority into three kinds, i.e., "traditional authority", "charismatic authority" and "legal-rational authority". Traditional authority refers to authority derived from customs and traditions such as the authority of kings, sultans etc. Charismatic authority refers to authority arising from a person's magnetic or charismatic personality, e.g., as in the authority of politicians such as Mohandas Gandhi and Mao Zedong and the authority of religious leaders such as Jesus, Mohammad and other founders of the great religions of the world. Legal-rational authority refers to authority arising from one's formal position within a bureaucratic organization such as a government agency or a private sector firm.

In this essay, I will discuss what makes a person "powerful" within formal organizations such as the government bureaucracy or the private sector firm (especially the latter).

Power can arise from any of the following:

  • Power Arising from Formal Position Within a Hierarchy;
  • Power Arising from Association;
  • Power Arising from the Possession of Scarce Technical Skills;
  • Power Arising from Control of Desired Resources;
  • Power Arising from the Support of Powerful Allies (Internal or External);
  • Power Arising from Force of Personality (Charisma) and Inter-personal Skills

Power Arising from Formal Position Within a Hierarchy

This is the most obvious source of power. If a person holds a high position within a formal hierarchy, he or she has the authority to issue orders and directives to subordinates (and also the authority to penalize "insubordination"). A person who holds a high position but who also abuses the power he or she possesses can cause considerable grief and low morale problems among subordinates.

Power Arising from Association

There is also "power by association" or power arising from being associated or identified with a more powerful person within the organization. Examples include Personal Assistants who may not earn much (relatively speaking) and do not appear on organization charts but who are powerful simply because they act as much trusted personal assistants to the Chief Executive Officer. Other powerful persons include relatives of the owner within a privately-owned company and favorites ("blue-eyed boy" or "blue-eyed girl") of the boss. Favorites may even include the boss' mistress or girlfriend who works within the company!

Power Arising from the Possession of Scarce Technical Skills

Power can arise from the possession of technical skills such as a deep knowledge of computers and computer systems used by the company. The computer people within a company may also have access to sensitive databases owned by the company. Thus, disgruntled computer personnel (including "low level" technicians) can cause considerable damage to a company by erasing important information from databases or by introducing computer viruses and so on into the computer system. They can also steal money from the company by tinkering around with software dealing with the financial system of the company.

Power Arising from the Control of Scarce Resources

The Finance people are always powerful within a formal organization because they have control over a key resource, i.e., money. Their approval is needed to fund projects and proposals. If they are against the funding of a particular project or proposal, this may swing the opinion of the ultimate decision-makers against the project or proposal.

Power Arising from the Support of Powerful Allies (Internal or External)

As mentioned earlier, the "blue-eyed boy" or "blue-eyed girl" of the Chief Executive Officer possesses power simply because he or she is a favorite of the boss. Being bad-mouthed to the boss by such people may be fatal to one's career! If one has powerful allies within an organization such as the Vice-President for Finance, things will get done much more easily. Conversely, if one has enemies who are powerful, one would experience many obstacles in getting things done.

External allies such as powerful politicians, influential news reporters and mass media personalities, powerful trade union leaders etc. would also help to enhance one's power within a formal organization. In some countries, having the support of powerful politicians can mean more government contracts and supportive legislation being channeled your way. Having the ear of influential mass media personalities may mean more favorable coverage of your company and your company's philanthrophic/public relations activities. Having good relations with powerful trade union leaders may mean the absence of strikes, work stoppages and other disruptions to a company's economic activities.

Power Arising from Force of Personality (Charisma) or Inter-Personal Skills

Some people are powerful within a formal organization simply because of their charismatic personalities or possession of excellent inter-personal skills. Other people are drawn to them because of their magnetic personalities and charisma. These other people may be willing to give their full co-operation or even go out of their way to fulfill the requests for assistance coming from the charismatic person.

I hope that you have benefited from reading this analysis of sources of power within a formal organization. I welcome your comments and opinions on this very interesting subject.


Kai-Lit Phua is a sociologist who teaches public health in the International Medical University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has prior work experience as a civil servant in the government bureaucracy of the state of Maryland and as a managerial level employee with a private sector insurance company in Singapore. His personal web site can be accessed at http://phuakl.tripod.com/index.html .

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Copyright 2003 by Kai-Lit Phua. All rights reserved.

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