power within the organisation

Power within the organisation

What are we really struggling for?


Growing within the organisation often means to acquire more power. Power within the organisation can often represent an influence tool, a career indicator, a “currency” trading, an award for success...and much more. Often associated with growth, improvement and enhancement of an employee’s condition.

Nevertheless, we often witness people strongly distressed with their new managerial positions, often struggling with meeting expectations they were not considering nor envisioning, concerned with overwhelming burden and weak capabilities to bear the responsibility that a managerial position brings along.

So the question is: if power can be so overwhelming…what are people often really struggling for?

Latest research (Lammers et al., 2016) shows that power as a concept can be very misleading: actually there is a very big difference between power as influence on others and power as autonomy (from others’ influence). In reality, when we long for more power we often desire autonomy (over influence on others).

In several simple but brilliant experimental studies with Western and Asian populations, Lammers & co (1) found that when we are faced with an opportunity of growth within the organisation, most of the times, we choose it only if it increases our autonomy. However we tend not to choose it if it means more influence over others (autonomy is 2.5 times more chosen than influence).

Moreover, the desire for “generic” power is generally mediated by the desire for autonomy more than the desire for influence: this means that when we say we want more power it is actually our desire for autonomy that pushes our will for it, much less than our will for influence over others does. Furthermore, when we feel our autonomy need is satisfied, we are less keen to desire more power. And this is valid for both western or eastern cultures, in experimental and real-life conditions.

Autonomy is related to freedom of action and independence and it arises as a basic need as soon as we are old enough to detach from our maternal nurture and explore our external world (Lichtenberg et al. 2011). Influence is also a basic need, but it brings along the will to shape our environment, influence it but also be responsible for our actions and connected to the ones we influence. Both are useful within the organisation and both exist within the “power” concept. But often we conceive power to be more related to influence rather than autonomy. Now research is telling us that we should be more careful when we handle the power concept.

When motivating our staff, or considering growth within the organisation, or awarding someone with a role advancement…are we considering these two complementary but very different sides of the same coin? We should be aware of these widely supported results, as power may not have the same meaning for everyone and, most of all, might satisfy very different needs in ourselves.

Joris Lammers, Janka I. Stoker, Floor Rink, and Adam D. Galinsky (2016) To Have Control Over or to Be Free From Others? The Desire for Power Reflects a Need for Autonomy.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 42(4) 498–512

Joseph D. Lichtenberg, Frank M. Lachmann, James L. Fosshage (2011) Psychoanalysis and Motivational Systems: A New Look. Taylor & Francis

Chiara Fregonese is a Consultant and Facilitator at Impact Italia.