Management Articles


Powerful Project Managers, their secrets revealed

By: Jim Owens PMP

Jim Owens PMP: Jim Owens PMP is a career Project Manager, presenter and PMP instructor. Jim is director of Certification with PMI Western Australia Chapter, Columnist with and Information Age Magazine. Visit Jim’s website Domains & Hosting from

I think that the Greeks are really lucky because they have a very rich language. I enjoy studying the origin of words and phrases, and I like writing poetry and stories, but what annoys me about the English language is that many words have a variety of meanings. For example I could say, “I love my computer,” or, “I love my wife,” or, ‘I love Thai food.” Obviously the word “love” has a different meaning in each phrase, and so we have to try to work out the meaning of the word by the context. And if we are given a single word instead of a phrase, we can't tell what its meaning is with certainty.

But in the Greek language, they have a whole range of words for each situation, for example the Greek words, “Eros”, “Zoe”, “Agape”, “Phileo”, “Stergo' and others, are all translated into English as “Love”, but each one has a different meaning. ‘Phileo” for example means brotherly love, or love of mankind.

This has an interesting implication for anyone who is familiar with the Bible, and in particular the ‘New Testament”, because the New Testament (NT) was written in Kone (common) Greek, but then translated into English -- and suddenly a lot of the richness disappears. For example the word “power” appears in several places, but just like “love”, the original Greek words translated as “power” have different meanings.

The two main Greek words translated as “power” in the NT are “dunamus” (meaning explosive power -- where we get our word “dynamite' from), and the second word is “exhousia' which means “authority”. As you can see, two very different meanings, but just one word in English

In project management, when we talk about “power” we mean the ability of the project manager to influence the behavior of team and other stakeholders. And just like Greek, the profession of Project Management defines different types of power too.

Knowing the different types of power in project management, and knowing how and when to use them, can be crucial to managing projects successfully. So if it all seems like Greek to you, please read on…

Types of Power.

Power is not merely the “dunamus' sledge-hammer power that forces people to obey your every command. There are a number of ways in which we can influence our team members. And remember, willing team-members will do a much better job than people who are beaten into submission.

The main ways that a project manager can influence people are by:

Expert Power.

In this situation the project manager is an expert on the product of the project. For example, my project management background is largely software development for the financial sector, but I am also a business analyst (before that I was a programmer), and I usually designed the systems that the projects build. So, usually I was the expert, and the team members would look up to me and trust my decisions because I had the knowledge necessary to complete the project -- if someone wanted to know something they just asked me. They knew that either I would know the answer, or I would know where to find it.

Reward Power.

With this type of power the project manager has the authority to offer inducements to people to the extent that the perceived value of the reward in the person's mind will outweigh any negative experiences that the person believes they must endure to get the reward.
When people think of “reward” they generally think of money, but -- believe it or not -- experts have demonstrated that money is not the “ultimate” for many people. So how else can you reward people? You can reward people with status, recognition etc -- but it can be as simple as allowing people to perform other tasks that they enjoy doing, e.g. “I know you really want to do this section of our Web page -- well as your quality has really improved this month I'm going to let you do it”

If that sounds unlikely -- what about game machines in arcades? When I was a kid we would put money in the arcade machines, and if we won the game then we would get some money back. But then some genius came up with the idea of rewarding winners with a “free” game, instead of money -- pretty clever, isn't it?

So reward power is about giving people what they desire so that you can ask them to do something in return.
For this to work, the person must believe that the offer of reward is genuine, that the reward is worth enduring the pain of performing the task, ad of course they must believe that they can accomplish the task.

Of course the negative side of reward power is withholding a reward if people don't comply.

Referent Power.

This one reminds me of the old saying, “It's not what you know that counts, it's who you know!”
What it boils down to is having power over someone because they want to be like you
This is the kind of power exercised by some charismatic religious leaders, politicians, celebrities and so on.

People holding this type of power can lead groups of people to perform in ways quite different from the norm, as can be seen in the historical records of dictators.
So this type of power really relies upon the project manager having particular charisma.
The negative side of referent power is the removal of a person from your presence or from the group that follows you.

Representative Power.

Note this one often isn't listed, but I've included it for completeness.
Representative power means that the group will elect to follow another member of a group voluntarily. This is very similar to referent power, but of course the person chosen by the group to lead them, may not be the project manager!

Okay now we start to go over to the dark side.

Coercive Power.

With this power the project manager has the ability to inflict punishment on the group. Members of the group may obey if they perceive the pain of punishment from the project manager as being worse than the pain of doing the task. This is the opposite of reward power -- but the goal is the same. For this to work, the person must believe that the threat of punishment is genuine, that the punishment is worse than performing the task, ad of course they must believe that they can accomplish the task.

Legitimate Power.

Legitimate come from the same root word as “legal”, i.e. the project manager has been given the power by a higher authority.

People respond to the project manager in the belief that they have the right to do what they are doing because they are fully supported by senior management. Note I said “believe”, because for this type of power to work it doesn't have to be genuine, as long as people believe it. When I was in high school I learned early that you could get a teacher to do almost anything for you (within reason), by marching into their classroom and saying confidently, “The headmaster says…”
Legitimate power is based on the idea in the mind of the person being influenced that the person having the influence has this influence because of the values of the person being influenced. In other words, the influenced person believes that the person influencing has the right to do this through formal authority in the organization.

For example, in medieval societies, the king was obeyed because everyone believed he had that authority from God. Although response to this sort of power may have once been motivated by fear, over time the power is changed into a tradition. The person who is the influencer has power over others even if he or she lacks the power to punish and reward any longer.

When a new employee starts to work in a firm, the authority and chain of command in the company is clearly explained to him or her. As long as people wish to work for this company they agree to respect the legitimate authority of those in positions above them.

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© Copyright 2007, Jim Owens PMP

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