Power vs Influence: How Can it Make or Break Your Organization

Share this Article
Power vs Influence How Can it Make or Break Your Organization

As a leader, when you think about the words “power” and “influence,” what comes to mind? The common understanding is that both are ways to motivate action from your team. But do we know the most effective ways to use each one? In the current job environment of “quiet quitting” and frequent job hopping, particularly among young talent, knowing this could be one of the most important tools in your leadership toolkit.

What Exactly Is the Distinction Between Power and Influence?

Power Tactics

Power has been defined as the capacity to get others to act based on the positional authority exercised over others (McIntosh and Luecke, 2011). By contrast, influence is the ability to modify how a person develops, behaves, or thinks based on relationships and persuasion.

Notice that power is a “capacity” or a status you have or have given to you; that is, it is a static condition. On the other hand, influence is an ability or skill that must be developed. As with any skill or ability, it takes time to develop and nurture to excel at it. Also, action on the part of the employee relies on them internalizing the influencing message, which can also take time. In a fast-paced corporate environment, is this time worth it, especially when you can get compliance from employees simply by directing people using your power through positional authority?

The answer lies in what your end goal is. Do you want a compliant team that may get the job done but may not be cohesive and may “quiet quit” or actually quit at any time? Or do you want a committed team that goes the extra mile and works cohesively to excel at achieving your business goals? 

How to Influence Employees – What the Organizational Research Says

How To Influence Employees

In the early 1980s, a team of organizational behaviorists (Kipnis, Schmidt, and Wilkinson) published a study on motivational behavior. That is, they wanted to know how people effectively “get their way.” Their findings included observation of nine distinct “Organizational Influence Strategies,” divided into “hard” and “soft” tactics.

Hard Organizational Influence Tactics:

  1. Request/Pressure: The use of positional authority to wield power, as we defined in the previous section. Sometimes called “command and control,” it involves not just requesting but frequently status checking and offering reminders.
  2. Legitimating: The use of requests supported by policies or corporate directives to legitimize the request.
  3. Coalition: The use of legitimating but supporting the request with the backing of a team, much like an “us vs. them” approach.

Soft Organizational Influence Tactics:

  1. Rational Persuasion: Legitimating using logical arguments and facts to show a request is feasible to attain a goal.
  2. Socializing/Ingratiation: The use of flattery before using a request/pressure approach. It is based on creating a positive social environment.
  3. Personal Appeal: The use of an underlying relationship of trust to request an action. It uses words like “Can I count on you to…?”
  4. Exchange: Based on reciprocity, it uses negotiation to get favor by giving a favor.
  5. Consultation: Asking for advice or opinions to achieve a goal after stating one’s perspective.
  6. Inspirational Appeal: Asking for action based on the other person’s core values, mindset, and emotions. Leaders that use this are able to demonstrate the link between an individual’s values and the need for the task. This leverages people’s own internal motivation to accomplish a goal.

How Effective Are Influence Tactics vs How Often Do Managers Use Them

Influential Leader

Interestingly, the first three in the list above most closely align with the above definition of power. Likewise, the last six progressively most closely align with our definition of influence. That is, there is a spectrum of tactics between power and influence. The ranking shown is in order of the most self-focused to the most “other”-focused, according to the researchers.

Another study (C. M. Falbe and G. Yukl) also looked at both frequency of use and effectiveness of each influence strategy above along three metrics of subordinate reactions:

  1. Commitment, or internal agreement with a management decision and an enthusiasm for reaching the goal of the task at hand;
  2. Compliance, or accepting to do the task because an authority figure requires it, often with apathy and average effort;
  3. Resistance, or the refusal to or delaying of doing a task or seeking to have the request rescinded.

Interestingly, the researchers found that managers’ most commonly used tactic was rational persuasion, followed by requesting/pressure tactics. Yet these were effective only 23% and 3% (yes, only three) respectively in achieving commitment from an employee. On the other hand, they were respectively 47% and 56% likely in the study to be met with resistance. This means that the most common methods of persuasion used by managers meet with resistance about half the time! Do we wonder why people “quiet quit?”

On the other hand, the least common tactic used was the inspirational appeal. This is the highest form of influence and the same tactic we saw an example of in our last blog article. Yet, in the study, not one research subject responded to it with resistance. And 90% of subjects responded with commitment. We don’t need to wonder why Dick Vermeil turned three losing NFL teams into three playoff contenders using this technique!

Is It Ever Ok to Use Power Tactics?

Power Leadership

Organizational behaviorists seem to agree that whereas ideally, you want to influence with inspirational appeals as much as possible, many of the tactics above may have their place. For example, when a task is urgent, power tactics, or at the very least, rational persuasion, maybe the most efficient option to rally the team to get it done. Having said that, experts also advise that using soft influencing tactics on a regular basis (and the practices in the next section) will decrease resistance significantly when a power tactic is needed to get an urgent task done.

How will you know when you are resorting to power plays too much? When you see a drop in your staff’s productivity or detect that they are becoming less tolerant of you as a leader. That is, your over-use of this management style will ultimately lead to resentment and the dreaded “quiet quitting.” And this could certainly “break” your organization!

Practices That Increase Influence

Practices That Increase Influence

So far, we’ve discussed ways to approach people when making work requests. But influence goes beyond just how to motivate specific actions. There are many ways we can build relationships so that our influence tactics are more effective, even somewhat independent of which we choose at the moment. A team dynamics publication from George Washington University suggests these important ones. Many repeat the themes of “executive presence,” which we saw in this blog post.

  1. Demonstrate interest in others. Demonstrate you understand their needs and interests. This is absolutely essential to influence by inspirational appeal. This also includes recognizing people’s individual contributions and showing appreciation.
  2. Offer assistance. Be understanding of your employee’s individual needs and help them if they are struggling to meet a goal. This includes being understanding of family or health issues that may be impacting their ability to work. Assistance may include decreasing workload, offering training, or even improving “quality of work” (that is, the amount of responsibility and meaningfulness an employee experiences).
  3. Be a valuable resource. Employees look to their superiors for information, knowledge, and even optimism in accomplishing a task. The more of these you can provide, the more credibility you will have with your team, and the more likely they will be to respect and follow you.
  4. Step in to resolve conflicts. Conflicts among team members are inevitable. Your ability to keep your team on track by calmly resolving problems and keeping the focus on the common goal will also build your team’s confidence in you.
  5. Challenge people’s thinking. Discuss issues that arise with your team. Can you frame them in different ways that lead to the discovery of innovative solutions or new business opportunities? This moves work forward in ways that are personally satisfying. And personal satisfaction in the workplace leads to loyalty.
  6. Go above and beyond. Be willing to get your hands dirty, collaborate, contribute and support to get a task done. This way, if your team requires extra effort, they may be more willing to make the sacrifice if they see you doing it too.

A Word About Peer Influence

Peer Influence

Influence doesn’t just happen with subordinates. In fact, some of the most important ways we influence an organization are among our peer leaders. According to the book Organizational Behavior (University of Minnesota), the challenge is to be willing to influence without being destructively competitive. By achieving a balance of supporting yet challenging peers, you create an environment where everyone is held mutually accountable for the best results. This is easiest if you always keep in mind the end goal of best serving the organization and its mission.

In fact, best serving the needs of the organization should always be the focus, regardless of which level you need to influence.

What if Influence Doesn’t Come Naturally to You?

You’re not alone – as we said before, although they are the most effective, studies show that most soft influence tactics are the least commonly used in the workplace! The good news is that a 2003 study by Seifer, Yukle, and McDonald showed that managers could learn to be more effective at influence. They studied two sets of managers: one set was in a control group; the other set was given constructive feedback and workshops on influence techniques. After three months, subordinates were asked to evaluate changes in their managers’ leadership styles. The workshop group received much higher ratings from their employees than the control group compared to the initial evaluation.

This would indicate that leadership coaching brings results! Are you interested in improving your effectiveness as an influential leader? Reach out to Strategy People Culture today. Our expertise has helped many leaders hone their leadership styles to be more effective influencers. We look forward to helping you as well!


Share this Article
Andy Botwin Profile pic

Andy Botwin

Andrew (or Andy) founded Strategy People Culture, LLC in 2012 with a passion for working with the interconnectivity between people and business and the fundamental beliefs in the symbiotic relationship between the advancement and success of both people and business.