Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 28;   July 13, 2011: Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View

Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View

by

Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
A sea otter and pup

A sea otter and pup. The sea otter is an example of what biologists call a keystone species — a species that has an effect on its environment that is outsized relative to its biomass. The sea otter's environment is dominated by kelp forests, the "trees" of which anchor themselves to the sea bottom with structures call holdfasts. Unlike the roots of land trees, which are complex nutrient-gathering networks, holdfasts provide little more than the anchoring function. Unfortunately for the kelp, sea urchins love to eat kelp roots — the holdfasts. When they do, the kelp plant floats away and dies. Sea otters, which prey on sea urchins, protect the kelp, and thus the entire ecosystem.

Influencers can serve similar functions in groups and organizations. They might be unimportant in almost every respect, but given authority, they can begin exercising influence, in the right ways and at the right times. In that way, they can enable the entire organization to make changes that affect everyone, including the influencers. Photo courtesy U.S. National Parks Service.

Much has been written about Power, Authority, and Influence, and a lot of it has landed on the Web. Google reports 447 million hits. Impressive, but to keep things in perspective, how to find a woman get 64.4 million hits, and how to find a man gets 748 million. Evidently, we care about Power, Authority, and Influence, but not as much as some other things.

I haven't looked at all 447 million pages yet, but I'm a little troubled by what I've found so far. Given our interest, one might expect that we'd have a clearer understanding of Power, Authority, and Influence, and their interrelationship, than we do.

True, what I found is a good beginning, but it's only a beginning. It ignores an important reality of human systems: human systems are systems. Any definitions of Power, Authority, and Influence in human systems must take into account the web of interrelationships of the human members of that system. Our understanding of Power, Authority, and Influence must encompass the idea that everyone affects everyone.

Let's look at these three concepts one by one. For each one, I'll give the conventional definition — the one I found over and over again in my unscientific survey — and then take a look at a systems view of the same concept.

Influence
Conventionally, to influence people is to change the opinions or behavior of others.
From a systems Any definitions of Power, Authority,
and Influence in human systems
must take into account the web
of interrelationships of the human
members of that system
view, influencers do not change opinions or behavior. Influencers provide a nudge, a catalyst, or a force that people use to change themselves. When influencers engage in this way with the influenced, they are in turn influenced themselves.
Power
Conventionally, Power is the ability of an influencer — a person or group or institution — to change people, by some means or other.
To believe that influencers do the changing is to ascribe more power to them than they actually have. Influencers say or do, but the people they influence are the ones who actually do the changing. Two powers are needed: the power to influence and the power to change. The power that actually matters is thus an attribute of the system, rather than an attribute of influencers.
Authority
Conventionally, Authority is legitimate Power — some say "legitimized" Power.
Authority need not be "legitimate." Rather, authority is something conferred, voluntarily or under duress, on an influencer or would-be influencer by the person or people the influencer wants to influence. Because it's conferred on the influencer by the influenced, both parties are involved. Authority, too, is an attribute of the system.

When we assess the effectiveness of attempts to influence, the legitimacy of authority matters less than the precise kind of authority that the influenced have conferred on the influencer. A catalog of the kinds of authority will be our topic in two weeks.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Self-Serving Bias in Organizations  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendogamfuhgjKRgAhfner@ChacUYgQOyvVelsABKAnoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Organizational Change:

Penguins look before they leapLook Before You Leap
When we execute complex organizational change, we sometimes create disasters. It's ironic that even in companies that test their products thoroughly, we rarely test organizational changes before we "roll them out." We need systematic methods for discovering problems before we execute change efforts. One approach that works well is the simulation.
Steppingstones in PompeiiChange How You Change
In the past two years, your life has probably changed. Do you commute over the same route you did two years ago? Same transportation? Same job? Same company? Same industry? Change is all around, and you're probably pretty skilled at it. You can become even more skilled if you change how you change.
FeedbackHe's No Longer Here
Sometimes we adopt inappropriate technologies, or we deploy unworkable processes, largely because of the political power of their advocates, and despite widespread doubts about the wisdom of the moves. Strangely, though, the decisions often stick long after the advocates move on. Why? And what can we do about it?
Winter dawn in BostonOn Beginnings
A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to letdown when our hopes or expectations aren't met. How can we handle beginnings more powerfully?
Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals ServiceKinds of Organizational Authority: the Informal
Understanding Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority found in organizations. Here's Part II of a little catalog of authority, emphasizing informal authority.

See also Organizational Change and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenfWBQHCQvMlmyvMiIner@ChacANhMtgjXLzcvfAHUoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.