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by Dr. Daniel Jensen, Corporate Faculty, Harrisburg University of Science & Technology

In the MGMT 560 – Organizational Leadership course, we have a unit on Power and Politics.  When instructing this unit, I initiate a discussion by asking students to state the first word that comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Power and Politics.”  Typically, the feedback includes terms such as corruption, dominance, threat, and other negative connotations.  Sometimes, however, a student will suggest power (the ability to influence others), and politics (the use of power) presents an opportunity.  Power is neither good or bad.  It is the way one uses power (political behavior) that determines if the act positively or negatively influences individuals and the Project Team. 

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide (2017) states that “Top Project Managers are proactive and intentional when it comes to power.  The Project Manager will work to acquire the power and authority they need within the boundaries of organizational policies, protocols, and procedures rather than wait for it to be granted” (p. 63).  The PMBOK Guide further identifies various sources of power to include:

  • Positional Power based on a formal position granted on the team;
  • Informational Power based on control of gathering or distribution;
  • Referent Power based on credibility, respect, and admiration;
  • Expert Power based on a relevant skill, experience, training and education;
  • Reward-oriented Power based on the ability to give praise, monetary or other desired items;
  • Punitive or Coercive Power based on the ability to invoke discipline or negative consequences.

The Project Manager acquires Positional Power (also referred to as Formal, Authoritative, or Legitimate Power) when appointed as the team manager.  However, because many Project Teams are cross-functional, the Project Manager may not possess formal Reward or Coercive Power.  In additional to Positional Power, the project manager’s influence may also include Expert, Referent and Information power.

The Project Manager is not the only person on the team who has the ability to influence team members.  A source of power that is sometimes overlooked, and even avoided, is the power possessed by the Project Team members.  Emotionally secure and experienced Project Managers seek out members of the team that can influence others.  These team members may have expertise, credibility, respect, and admiration that facilitates an ability to influence others on the team to include the Project Manager.  Leveraging team member power is an opportunity to enhance the collaborative process and allow team members to influence the direction of the team with guidance and input provided by the Project Manager.  Team members who possess power may not realize they have this ability.  The role of the Project Manager is to enhance awareness of power and embrace team members’ ability to influence their teammates – in short, to empower their team members.  Insecure and inexperienced Project Managers may consider team member power as a threat rather than an opportunity – a threat to their credibility, competence, and authority.  Their perspective is that a team members’ ability to influence will detract from their ability to influence.  This misperception creates distrust and disempowers the team. 

Empowering team members can result in enhanced motivation and superior performance; however, empowerment must be appropriate and deliberate.  Team members must be willing and able to accept empowerment.  A new member of the team, who has not been oriented and trained, may not be ready for empowerment.  Empower an experienced and willing member of the team as much as possible.  So, giving consideration to team members’ ability, willingness, and confidence, Project Managers need to empower as appropriate.

Leveraging team member power requires multi-dimensional trust:

  • Project Manager’s trust of Project Team members;
  • Team members’ trust of the Project Manager;
  • Trust among team members. 

Once trust is established and earned, the focus is on “what’s best for the team,” not necessarily on “what’s best for me.”  The Project Team is open to influence from any members of the team as long as this influence facilitates team success.  

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (2002), Patrick Lencioni identifies vulnerability-based trust at the “heart of a functioning cohesive team” (p. 195).   Vulnerability-based trust “requires team members to make themselves vulnerable to one another…these vulnerabilities include weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help” (p. 196).  This vulnerability also applies to trust between the Project Manager and the team members.  The Project Manager is not all-knowing and mistake-free. Team members know this, so acting as if one is all-knowing erodes trust and credibility.  A Project Manager must be authentic, admit when he or she needs help, and seek team members that can provide expertise, relate experiences, and influence other team members. 

Remember that Power is neither good or bad.  It is the way one uses power (political behavior) that determines if the act positively or negatively influences individuals and the Project Team. 

Identifying and leveraging team member power is an opportunity, not a threat! 


References:

Project Management Institute (2017). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK Guide), 6th Ed. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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