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Volume 11, Issue 28;   July 13, 2011: Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View

Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View

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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

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