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Developing & Understanding Power Bases as a New Lawyer

Pop Economics has a post up on negotiating a raise today, which some might find useful. However, I wanted to focus on something else that is listed in the post: a power framework. It references the work of Dr. Frank Petrock of the LEAD Institute, and his work on the effective and necessary use of power within an organization.

“. . . contrary to what people may think, a good manager is not one who needs personal success or who is people oriented, but one who likes power. A strong power motive — the desire to have impact, to be strong and influential — is essential to good management. A strong power motive is more characteristic of good leaders than either a need for personal achievement or affiliation, which is the need to build good relationships…”(1)

…Power — wanting it, having it and using it — has a negative connotation in our culture. Most everyone tends to associate power with the dark side of human nature and with being autocratic and dictatorial. Therefore, no one wants to be known as power oriented, which gets translated into being power hungry. And, no one wants to admit they want power and/or even to have it. But, the fact is that the research done by McClelland still shows that the dominant motivator of effective leaders is power.

Dr. Petrock goes on to postulate that there are seven general bases of power that a person can possess, which are in turn used to influence the thought and behavior of other people:

  • 1. Legitimate Power is the formal “legal” authority that is embodied in your position and/or title. You have the “right to manage” and to expect compliance because of your place in the organization. With Legitimate Power there is little need for a personal relationship between you and others. Others respect the authority carried in the position regardless of who occupies the position. The higher your rank, the more Legitimate Power you have.
  • 2. Reward Power is based on your capacity to provide things that others desire. You make positive outcomes such as pay increases, recognition, interesting job assignments and promotions, among other things, contingent on desired behavior. To be effective, this power base requires that others value the incentives offered and that they believe that you can and will provide them.
  • 3. Coercive Power could be considered the flip side of Reward Power. This power is based on your capacity and willingness to produce conditions that the others want to avoid, or find unpleasant. Coercive Power relies on the contingent use of punishments such as criticism, poor performance appraisals, reprimands, undesirable work assignments, or dismissal. Coercive Power is most effective when its application is both immediate, certain and consistent.
  • 4. Connection Power is the power you derive from relationships with other influential, important or competent people. In today’s language, it is your “network”. Because you have a network of connections with other “powerful people”, you can use these relationships to influence the behavior of others who also want to be seen favorably by these other influential people. Of course, be careful you do not over use this and become seen as a “name dropper”.
  • 5. Information Power is based on you having access to information that others are not privy to, do not know about and which they believe is important. Others comply because they believe that what you want them to do is based on some special and/or maybe even inside information that you have.
  • 6. Expert Power is based on your skill, knowledge, accomplishments or reputation. Others are willing to do what you want because they trust that your superior expertise will produce the desired results. Your Expert Power also instills confidence in others even when the solution and/or way forward may not be clearly understood. This base of power requires that the subordinates trust your expertise and believe it applies to the issue at hand.please the leader, have the leader like them and/or want to become like the leader themselves. This attraction gives the leader power to influence the behavior of others.
  • 7. Referent Power is based on personal feelings of attraction, or admiration, that others have for you. Referent Power is truly in the “eye of the beholder” where others see something special in you allowing you to take the lead, to be in the lead or be given the lead. This “something special” is called charisma where others are willing to do what the leader wants because they want to please the leader, have the leader like them and/or want to become like the leader themselves. This attraction gives the leader power to influence the behavior of others.(2)

These seven bases are powers are then grouped within two general spheres: positional & personal.  Positional power bases are Legitimate, Reward and Coercive. Personal Power bases are Connection, Information, Expert and Referent.

  • Positional power bases are related more to the position of authority you hold in the organization and are most effective with your direct reports. Rarely can you overtly use these to influence the behavior or your boss or colleagues.
  • Personal bases of power are embodied in you and not so much your job role, or position. Cultivating these bases of power gives you the capacity to influence the behavior of everyone — bosses, colleagues and direct reports. Having these means that when you speak, others listen.(2)

So what’s to take away from this conceptual power framework?

If you’re a new lawyer you probably rank rather low in the positional power framework. However, there is no limit on developing the bases in relation to the personal power sphere. A new lawyer can:

  • Network (online and off) with those he/she wants to have relationships.
  • Develop a knowledge base in a particular area.
  • Broaden one’s general knowledge base. Diversify. Don’t become immersed purely in law. Know about your client’s business. Learn about economics and business generally.
  • Develop confidence and display it. This is not to be confused with arrogance. Even though you might be a new lawyer, be confident about your thoughts and positions.

-1)David C. McClelland and David Burnham, Power Is The Great Motivator, HBR, #76206

-2)Dr. Frank Petrock, Leadership & The Bases of Power – Part I Available here.

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Note: Sorry about the delay in the Shu Ha Ri series. That’s a rather personal pet project and I prefer to provide useful, general professional development knowledge for lawyers rather than indulge in my own interests. I’ll pick it back up Friday.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.
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