Power in Organisations

Over the last half century, it is clear that although organisations have progressively increased in size and wealth, the perceived power held within organisations has not changed a whole great deal.

Power can be defined as a person’s ability to influence another person.

In 1963, Stanley Milgram carried out and published research into the area of obedience. He carried out an experiment to distinguish how much power people in a position of authority would have in commanding a person to give an electric shock to another person, even if the person believed they were endangering the life of the other person. The people (40 males, aging from 20-50 years in age and ranging in a diverse set of occupations) in the study were falsely told that the purpose of the study was to determine the effects of punishment on learning; so essentially, they were teachers. The teacher was told that the learner, who was in the next room, was strapped to a chair with an electrode attached to their wrist. Each time the learner got a wrong answer, the teacher was told (by the experimenter, who was another actor) to administer a shock to the learner. At the end of it, the purpose was to see how far the teacher would go in administering electric shocks, which ranged from 15-450 voltage markings. Moreover, if the teacher did not want to continue then they would be told, by the experimenter, that they must continue. At the end of the experiment, 65% of the participants administered the shock until the end. This shows the extent of power a person in a position of authority is able to exert, and how far people will go to ensure they obey the commands given to them. However, an important point to make is that the person in this study was wearing a white coat, which often gives that person a higher ‘perceived’ level of authority than they actually have.

In today’s day and age, the same experiment was conducted by Derren Brown on TV. The results of that experiment were fairly similar to the findings of 50 years ago, which did not surprise me. People still think the same way, times have just changed.

So, is it the same within a business? Well at lower levels of management it is likely for the employees to obey the instructions of their managers as they are likely to value their jobs very highly. That’s not to say that employees higher up in the organisation won’t value their jobs, they are just likely to feel more secure and confident in their role, so may not always obey every command spoken by their manager. There are many factors that need to be considered in a business that will affect the power that a person will feel they have, for example:

The economic climate – the current climate is not positive for many people as jobs are harder to come by and many people are just happy to have a job, especially at lower levels. Therefore the person in a position of power may feel as if they have a greater degree of power in this situation because if people don’t listen to them, they can make much more powerful threats (which could be seen as unethical but it does happen).

Ultimately, power is the same now as it was then, due to 4 essential factors:

1) Status. This is not going to be more important now, than in 20 years’ time; it is in the nature of the human race to associate status with power.

2) Claim on resources. Employees operating within the finance department of a business may feel that they are in a position of power as they manage the financials of the company.

3) Representation in powerful positions. If an employee has a good relationship with a manager high up in the organisation, they essentially have as much power as their manager, as they could use that relationship to their advantage.

4) Symbols of power. Some people will associate the car they drive, for example an Audi or Mercedes, with power. Within an organisation, an employee with their own PA will feel they have power over others that do not.

These are indicators which people use to distinguish the level of power they have. These stem from the work of Pfeffer in 1981, and I feel it is safe to say that these indicators are still as relevant today as they were then.