top of page

Navigating Team Dynamics as a Leader — The Sources of Power

At work, power is thought to come from a person’s title—a supervisor has power over their direct reports and their supervisor has power over them. But experience tells us that actual, lived power dynamics are not always this simple. Most people reading this article now probably know at least one naturally outgoing coworker that’s able to exert outsized influence over their colleagues (and maybe even supervisors), and at least one quiet coworker that can’t seem to have even their best ideas heard.

In truth, a formal title is only one component of an individual’s power. Informal power, that which is exerted through personality, behavior, communication skills and the like, often plays an extremely important role in the dynamics that guide professional relationships. Consider the following scenario:

Consider Anna.

Anna is a corporate manager that holds a forceful, influential presence within her organization. She is extremely knowledgeable within her domain, largely fair and objective in her judgments, and has built an indisputable reputation for providing expert-level decision-making and problem-solving using bold, innovative strategies. She’s also known for her short temper, tendency to demean others when they don’t perform to her standards, and unwillingness to negotiate, compromise, or debate ideas with other employees. The team under her command is relatively successful, but suffers from high turnover and often falls short of Anna’s own expectations. Her direct reports’ dissatisfaction with her leadership is an open secret throughout the organization.

Consider Bob.

Bob is a new hire recently put under Anna’s supervision. He is energetic, intelligent, and eager to learn the ins and outs of the office. He is outgoing, friendly, and immediately bonds with Anna on a level that few others ever dare to attempt. Bob quickly makes a habit of coming in early when only he and Anna are in the office. He chats with her, listens to her frustrations, takes it upon himself to deal with bothersome tasks, and goes above and beyond to assist Anna with nearly everything she requests. He is competent and thorough in his work, and within a few months Anna comes to see Bob as the kind of employee she had always asked for.

After a few weeks, Anna and Bob’s relationship begins to take on new dynamics. Bob begins to show influence over Anna’s decision-making and the direction of her team by extension. He sets daily agenda items and disrupts ongoing projects without Anna’s authorization. Having volunteered to delegate team responsibilities, he takes to assigning himself preferred tasks and leaving non-preferred ones for his colleagues. He reveals a quickness of his tongue and a talent for shooting down dissent from others with witty, sometimes disparaging, remarks. Even Anna herself shows difficulty standing up to Bob’s influence, and often sinks quietly back into her work when Bob decides to take charge.

While Anna still has her title, knowledge, and experience, Bob finds ways to influence Anna’s team through entirely different means. People genuinely enjoyed working with Bob! He is intelligent and hard working. Despite his self-serving practices, he is often warm to his colleagues. He had an uncanny ability to make people feel either good or bad about themselves, seemingly at will, and used this ability to influence his colleagues in ways Anna could not. Mere weeks after he had been hired, Anna’s team trusted Bob’s leadership over that of their actual supervisor.

On some level Anna might have understood the nature of her relationship with Bob, but she did not take action to shift power dynamics back in her favor. Perhaps she felt guilty confronting Bob after he had been so friendly to her. Perhaps she felt incapable of winning her team back, and thought that things were adequate enough as they were. Or perhaps she was pleased that Bob had taken the responsibility of managing her team off of her shoulders and preferred to work on her own individual tasks by herself. Regardless of the reason, Bob became the de facto leader in the eyes of Anna’s team. Team members were content, but slightly bored, and performance began to stagnate.

In this scenario, neither Anna nor Bob are perfect leaders. But they aren’t hopeless wrongdoers either. While Anna is highly knowledgeable, highly competent, and a proven decision-maker, her harsh leadership style left her team frustrated and demotivated. Bob, as intelligent and affable as he was, had both the willingness and capability to fill the gaps in Anna’s leadership, but had a tendency to abuse his power for self-serving needs, and was much less technically skillful or experienced than Anna.

Bob holds what Industrial-Organizational Psychologists call Referent Power, or power derived from a person’s social attractiveness or admiration. By contrast, Anna holds Legitimate Power, or the agreed upon formal power granted by her title, and Expert Power—power derived from demonstrated skills and knowledge. It’s tempting to conclude that Anna’s power is the only kind that should matter in a professional setting, and that the appropriate action at this point would be to discipline Bob or remove him from the company. But as the scenario illustrates, Bob's influence is not entirely negative. Rather than stamping Bob’s influence out by force, a more versatile solution would involve recognizing its potential for positive impact, and taking steps to harness it in productive ways.

Both Anna and Bob have their advantages as leaders, but they also have critical weaknesses. Opposing one another, these weaknesses had clear negative effects on the functioning of the team. Should Anna have had the awareness and tact to examine how Bob was able to gain so much influence over her team, she could have worked to leverage Bob’s charisma and rally the team behind her more ambitious strategies. Working together, they had the potential to balance each other’s strengths and further common goals.

In order to achieve this balance within their own teams, organizational leaders can start by building awareness in two key areas: awareness of existing team dynamics, and awareness of the needs and goals that existing dynamics are unable to meet.

To build awareness of existing dynamics, this quick guide detailing the six bases of power identified by Psychologists French and Raven (1959) serves as a great reference. Each of the six bases has distinct strengths and weaknesses which manifest in different ways. Understanding them is an important step towards uncovering the dynamics that reside within a team.

Building awareness of your team’s unmet needs and goals is a bit trickier, and requires leaders to use their relationship-building, problem-solving, and communication skills. With Anna and Bob, we know that the expectations Anna has of her team are not being met by existing team dynamics. These are her unmet needs, and knowing them makes her incentive for a change in dynamics clear. But such an incentive is not as readily apparent for Bob. Getting him on board with new team dynamics requires an examination of his motivations, and a commitment to understanding his particular workplace needs. With this information, Anna has the tools to develop a new leadership strategy that is mutually beneficial to her, Bob, and the rest of her team. The entire team has a clear incentive for change, and new team dynamics can form with minimal opposition.

Awareness of a team’s existing power dynamics gives organizational leaders a reference against which to build their personal influence strategy. Awareness of the needs not being met by existing dynamics gives them the leverage they need to put that strategy into practice. Together, these two factors give leaders a robust toolset with which to mobilize employees and build sustainable influence in a positive, productive manner. Both are essential parts of maintaining healthy team dynamics, and of becoming a versatile, effective, and influential leader.

The Six Bases of Power
Download PNG • 651KB

French, J. R. P., Jr., & Raven, B. H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in Social Power (pp. 150–167). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.


bottom of page