Social Power and the Human Resources Professional

Hugh MacDonald

Getting a seat at the table requires influence. Getting influence requires power.

To get others to accept and act on our vision, values, ideas, principles or techniques we have to change how people act, how they think or what they believe. They do this if we can project some form of power. John French and Bertram Raven (1960) classified various types of social power—coercive power, reward power, legitimate power, expert power, referent power and information power.
  • Coercive Power: The power we have to punish others or force them to comply through the threat of violence—real or imagined.
  • Reward Power: The power that we have because of our ability to reward others (e.g. the ability to make work assignments, hiring decisions, vendor selection decisions).
  • Legitimate Power: The power we have been given because of our position in a social hierarchy or structure (e.g. a rank in the military, an executive in a corporation, a committee chair in a volunteer organization, an elected politician).
  • Expert Power: The power we have, at least within our own area of expertise, because others recognize us as an authority—a specialist or professional (e.g. an human resources or compensation, labor relations or training specialist).
  • Referent Power: The power we have that’s been given to us by others—usually because they "refer" to us in some way. They may like us, or want to be like us or they have decided that, for some other reason, we merit their respect, and they will respond to us as a role model (e.g. parents, celebrities of all kinds, heroes and athletes).
  • Information Power: The power we have because of our possession, or control, of important, superior or proprietary information.
French and Raven’s work suggested that these forms of power operate on individuals, not groups. In other words, a group may have power and it may project that power to influence an individual, but it doesn’t work in the other direction. The individual doesn’t influence the group. He or she influences the individuals within the group. Their actions may then influence their own group. Influence, however, begins with the individual.

There are other forms of power. Some power comes from our entitlements—the enforceable rights we have in a contract. Some comes from moral suasion or are seen as due to us because of our position (e.g. shareholder) or professional status (e.g. actuary or company medical director).

Power is our back-up plan when all else fails. If the vendor won’t deliver, if our outsourcing partner won’t play ball, if the other department won’t work cooperatively and nothing else works, we can always use our power. We can take our ball and go home as we did on the playground. In other words, we can cancel the contract. We can reduce the order. We can partner with someone else.

Rights and entitlements also have their place. We can point to a contract provision, we can invoke human resources and other policies. We can submit an intractable disagreement to an arbitrator. In the end, we can go to court.

Most human resources professionals, however, are wise enough not to rely on, or overuse, their entitlements or "hard" power. People want to feel they have some control over workplace decisions. Human resources power is best used lightly.

What we want to do, therefore, is put the "hard" forms of power and entitlements aside (until and unless we need them) and work in the realm of "soft" power. Soft power, a term coined by Joseph Nye (2004), is what we posses when we can influence others without being coercive or manipulative. It is based on persuasion and ethical methods. It is bi-directional. That is, if we have soft power we can use it to project social influence. The more social influence we have, the more soft power we have. We increase our soft power and learn how to project it by improving our influencing skills.

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