Joseph Pelrine

At the intersection of psychology, social complexity, and agility

Category: Writing

More Thoughts on Power

In my last blog post on the different types of power (here), I noted that it is more advantageous to focus on increasing expert and referent power than the other power bases. I’d like to look at this in a bit more detail here.

Power bases may be divided into two categories

–       positional, i.e. situations where a person is in a position to have power
–       personal, i.e. situations where a person’s power is intrinsic in nature

Reward, coercive, and legitimate power are all positional in nature. To have them, one must be in a position to reward or coerce, or to have legitimate authority. Raven’s later addition, information power, is also positional in nature (Raven, 1965). Personal power bases are, in a way, easier to increase, as the effort required is purely personal, and does not always require outside help. This being said, which of the 2 personal power bases should one focus on increasing?

Benfari et al. (1986) define power relatively simple as “the capacity to influence the behaviour of others”. For them, power is value-neutral. Power is also interpersonal; it requires (at least) two individuals, whose power interactions may be reciprocal or one-sided. For individuals, power exists as two aspects: as a motive, and as a behaviour, and either aspect may be disturbing to the person(s) on the receiving end.

The need for power exists in all of us to a greater or lesser degree. Simply having control over one’s own life is a form of power. Problems start when the urge for power increases, when the desire for power becomes a motive or driving force for someone’s actions, up to the point where it becomes pathological (e.g., as seen in too many politicians). When power is exercised and manifested as influence, it becomes a behaviour in itself. Even though power may be value-neutral, the response to power actions may be positive (P+) or negative (P-) for the recipient, and will thusly change the recipient’s view of the wielder of the power. For example, consider expert power. We have all profited at some time from the advice of an expert, but how often have we experienced someone flaunting his expertise as a know-it-all?

The recipient views the power as negative if he feels a sense of being exploited or manipulated. If the recipient views the power as positive, i.e. when the recipient benefits from the power, he feels support, increased motivation, and an ego boost.

Different types of power have different positive and negative aspects. Reward power is only positive, coercive power only negative. Benfari et al. list 7 types of power – in addition to the 5 classic types described by French and Raven, they include Raven’s information power, and add what they call “affiliation power”. This type of power is similar to the concept of centrality in social network analysis (Bonacich, 1987), and describes the power a person has by virtue of their access to other persons of power, by being affiliated with them. (n.b. Benfari et al. also mention the power of groups. Since this is not an individual power base, we’ll look at it in a later post, but not here).

Power base Explanation Perceived as
Reward Positive strokes, remuneration, awards, compliments, other symbolic gestures of praise P+
Coercion Physical or psychological injury, verbal and non-verbal put-downs, slights, symbolic gestures of disdain, physical attack,demotion, unwanted transfer, withholding of needed resources P-
Legitimate Management right to control, obligation of others to obey, playing ‘the boss’ and abusing authority P-
Exercise of leadership based on authority in times of crisis or need P+
Referent Identification based on personal characteristics, sometimes on perception of charisma; or reciprocal identification based on friendship, association, sharing personal
information, providing something of value to the other, and on common interests, values, viewpoints and preferences; creation of reciprocal ‘IOUs’
Expert Possession of specialized knowledge valued by others, used to help others, given freely when solicited P+
Unsolicited expertise, seen as unwarranted intrusion; continual use can create barriers; expertise offered in a condescending manner can be seen as coercive; withholding expertise in times of need P-
Information Access to information that is not public knowledge, because of position or connections; can exist at all levels in the organization, not just at the top; those at the top may know less about what is going on; secretaries and personal assistants to senior executives often have information power, and can often control information flows to and from superiors P-
Affiliation ‘Borrowed’ from an authority source with whom one is associated – executive secretaries and staff assistants act as surrogates for their superiors; acting on the wishes of the superior P+
Acting on their own self-interest; using negative affiliation power by applying accounting and personnel policies rigidly P-

Source: Based on Benfari et al. (2001)

As can be easily seen from the table above, the only types of power that are considered purely positive are reward and referent power, and of these, only referent power is personal-based. This provides a good argument for a focus on increasing referent power if you want to be able to help your clients’ teams, and co-workers. In my last blog post, I mentioned a number of core competencies to concentrate on for increasing referent power. Here are some other tips from Benfari et al.

  • Get to know the motives, preferences, values and interests of colleagues.
  • Build relationships using shared motives, goals and interests.
  • Build large networks of people and information – make connections between individuals and between individuals and different stakeholders.
  • Respect differences in interests, and points of view-don’t attack – invite reciprocity.
  • Give positive strokes, use reward power, confirm others competence.
  • Share information and expertise with others.
  • Minimise concerns with status.
  • Develop communication skills – assertiveness, meta-communication, question asking, clarity and rapport.
  • Manage your impression – dress, body language, facial expression, voice one, etc.
  • Develop understanding of how people tick – e.g. body language, use of language, ‘trigger points’.
  • Develop an understanding of systemic deep dynamics and implicit information channels – know what you are sitting in in any given moment.
  • Demonstrate congruence between espoused values and behaviours.
  • Develop ability to take risks and lead on issues – even if it is lobbying for an idea within a meeting.

Sounds like good advice for anyone wanting to become a better ScrumMaster, doesn’t it?


Benfari, R.C. et al. (1986) The Effective Use of Power. Business Horizons, 29, 12.
Bonacich, P. (1987) Power and Centrality: A Family of Measures. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 92, No. 5, 1170-1182.
Raven, B.H. (1965) Social influence and power. In Current studies in social psychology, (Ed, Steiner, I.D.F., M.) New York: Hoh, Rinehart. Winston, pp. 371-381.

Authority and Power

One of the classic sayings in Scrum is that the ScrumMaster has no authority. He cannot tell his team members what to do, or what not to do. In a way, this makes sense. If the ScrumMaster had the authority to tell people what to do, he would take away their opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, to become committed and not just involved. Looking at it differently, by telling team members what to do, he would give them the chance to refuse responsibility for their actions. “It’s not my problem, he told me to do it!” Even though the ScrumMaster has no authority, this does not mean that he has no power.

Power cannot be taken, it can only be given. A person only has power over you if you give them this power over you. Being aware of the ways you give people power over you will help you avoid doing it unintentionally or inadvertently. So, what types of power may a person possess, and which types of power should one best focus on increasing?

In 1959, John French and Bertram Raven wrote a seminal paper on the different types of power (1959). According to French and Raven, power is defined as the potential ability of one person to influence another person. Thus, power is potential influence, while influence is kinetic power.

In their paper, French and Raven define five different types of power, all of which may vary in their domain, strength and range.

Reward power. You gives a person reward power over you when you believe that they can do something good for you or they can take away something bad. Obviously, if the person actually does do something good for you, his or her reward power over you increases.

Coercive power. You give a person coercive power over you if you believe that the person can do something bad to you, for example, cause you harm or pain. If the person actually does something bad to you, their power over you increases. The mere awareness or threat of coercive power is often enough to enforce compliance. Imagine if you were driving a car and you saw a police officer standing on the corner. Even if he was not looking directly at you, you would tend to drive slower.

Legitimate power. You give a person legitimate power over you if you believe that they have the right to have this power. This right often comes as the result of an implicit or explicit social contract. An example for an implicit social contract would be a contract that parents have with their children (although as every parent knows, this contract must be renegotiated regularly). An explicit social contract would be your work contract, which gives your boss power over you. As one can see, legitimate power contains both reward and coercive components. If you do something good at your job, you may get a bonus. If you do something bad at your job, you may get fired.

Expert power. You give a person expert power over you if you believe they have superior knowledge relevant to the situation and to the task at hand. This power rarely extends outside of the domain of expertise, but the implied transference of expert power into other domains is a technique often used in advertising.

Referent power. Referent power is the most difficult type of power to describe. It is best understood as a type of power that comes from personal integrity and/or from charisma. This is the type of power that Gandhi or Nelson Mandala or Martin Luther King had. Over time, though, the power these men had became legitimate power, as they were voted into political office.

In his later works, Raven added a sixth type of power, which he termed informational power. Having access to information, and the ability to use this information, can give a person power. As an example, think of Edward Snowden.

Looking at the different types of power, one sees that they can be grouped into two groups – positional power, which is power one receives as the result of being in a position to have the power, and personal power, which is not dependent upon position, but solely dependent upon the person. If you want to increase your power base, in order to better help people, then which type(s) of power should you focus on increasing?

Being in a position to give a reward or to coerce, or being in a position of having the right to legitimate power, puts one in the position to command others. This is not the type of power a ScrumMaster should use. This is the reason why no one who is in a management position can be a ScrumMaster for his team. It is better to focus on increasing your personal power than on increasing your positional power.

How can you start increasing your personal power? You can increase your expert power by concentrating on your continued professional development. Reading, keeping up to date on new developments in your field, attending trainings, etc., are all ways of increasing your expert power.

Increasing your referent power can be done by focusing on your continued personal development. This is a noble task whether or not you work as a ScrumMaster, since furthering your personal competencies will increase your feeling of well-being. Awartani et al. (2008) define well-being as the realisation of one’s physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual potential.

Mental or rational well-being as that part of life which is primarily related to thinking and cognition, and to the processes of the rational mind, e.g.: planning, understanding, focusing, envisioning, abstraction, reflection, evaluation.

Emotional refers to the intrapersonal or inward-looking awareness and processing of feelings, of understanding your feelings, their triggers, and your reaction patterns, of having your emotions under control, and not being “hijacked” by them.

Social refers to the interpersonal or outward-looking awareness and processing of feelings, of understanding how they influence our interactions with others.

Physical refers to those aspects of life related to the physical senses and to sensory experience, to our bodies, and to the material and natural environments. The actions and functions of doing, building, taking apart, detailing, producing, acting, and making practical are included.

Spiritual is not necessarily a religious or esoteric concept, but refers to life, to its meaning and purpose, to beliefs and what one believes in. You are believable for others when they feel that you believe deeply and strongly in something.

Although all these aspects each play a role, well-being represents a pervasive feeling about oneself, one’s life, and one’s environment. You can start right now and take a first step towards your own well-being. Take a few moments to think about these 5 areas, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and which areas you want to focus on strengthening.


Awartani, M. et al. (2008) Developing Instruments to Capture Young People’s Perceptions of how School as a Learning Environment Affects their Well-Being. European Journal of Education, 43, 51-70.
French, J.R.P.Jr. & Raven, B. (1959) The Bases of Social Power. In Studies in Social Power, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, pp. 150-167.

On retrospective coherence – Part 1

I met up with my friend Michael last night. Michael’s a great guy, an expert in many fields, but one thing he really does well is throw a party. I have many happy (and sometimes drunken) memories of bashes held at his place.

One of the reasons I met up with him was because I’m planning a small surprise party for another close friend, and I wanted to benefit from his experience and advice. What made Michael’s parties so good? During our chat, we realized that it was it the people attending, and their conversations. Not only that, it was also the music. Of course, we couldn’t forget the food and drink.

In the end, I decided to ask Michael to help me organize the party. He knew exactly what needed to be done for a party to be a success, and I was convinced that, if we just did the same things he always did, my party would turn out great. So, what was the first thing he said?

“Joseph, if you want to have a great party, you have to invite all of my friends.”

I thought I didn’t hear right. I wanted to invite my own friends, but on the other hand, I knew that with his friends, the party would be a smash, like his parties. Sensing my disappointment, he tried to cheer me up by saying that he could save me a lot of money. I wouldn’t need a DJ, he said, because he noted all the songs his DJ played, and he could just give me a playlist for my iPod. I’d have to lock the iPod away, so that no one could manipulate the song order, but he was sure that with these specific songs, played exactly in this order, the party would be a success. Also, it seems he videotaped his last party, and noted what everyone ate and drank. He’d provide me with scripts for all the guests, with precise timings, so that everybody ate and drank the proper things at the proper time. Of course, all conversation and interaction would also be scripted.

So, just imagine you plan to have a party, and it must be as good as the last one you held. You invite the same people, and just to make sure you’ve covered everything, you tell them to wear the same things, and speak only to the same people as last time. You’ve got the same music playlist, the same food, drinks and layout. Will this be a good party? Does something seem wrong with this story?

The answers to these last questions seem logical, although you can’t easily explain why. There is a reason, though, and this reason is key to understanding the basic issues surrounding complex problems and agile methods.

It’s called retrospective coherence.

One thing that makes complex systems complex is their causality. In an ordered system, if you do something, you expect a specific result. Do it again, expect the same result. It’s that simple. In a complex system, though, the causality emerges as the system emerges. As the party goes on, the reasons for its success become established, not before. After it’s over, you can say that a party was a success, and that these people were there, this music was played, and this much beer was downed  – but you cannot say that the party was a success because these people were there, this music was played, and this much beer was downed!

In a complex system, causality emerges as the system itself emerges, so that at the end, you can say how you got to where you are, but you can’t guarantee that by doing exactly the same things, you’ll get to the same place again – and you probably won’t. In complex systems, we say the causality is retrospectively coherent.

So let’s take a closer look, and consider what it actually was that made Michael’s party so good. It wasn’t any one factor, but how they interacted. It wasn’t the components, but the emergent complex system, that was a success. An interesting thing to note here is that the things that people often interpret as being the causes of a success aren’t that, they’re the symptoms. For instance, was it the people that made the party a good one? The music that was played? His choice of fine food and drink? Well, yes and no. Michael played a significant part because he’s a great host. He’s constantly walking around, looking, questioning. Is anyone standing all alone? Introduce them to a group! Does everyone have a drink? If not, get some more beer! Are people dancing? Trying to talk? Put on upbeat or down-tempo music as appropriate! All the time, the good host is surveying the scene and making small adjustments.

As a good host, Michael drew some boundaries. His bedroom was off-limits. His single-malt collection locked away. And, he set up a few things that people would be attracted to: a wide-screen television, a keg of beer, some games maybe. Every party needs attractors. Did you ever wonder why so many people congregate in the kitchen at a party, even if it’s the smallest room?
One thing he didn’t do is to define success, prescribe or proscribe behaviour (could you imagine saying that a party would only be a success if someone danced on the table with a lampshade on their head?). He let the party evolve, observed which patterns emerged, gently supported the good patterns, disrupted the bad patterns as soon as he noticed them, but generally let the party run itself.

Now shift the focus to a project. We tend to make the mistakes above when it comes to project planning. What worked last time? Why? Well, it must have been the people, the methodology, the meeting schedule – let’s do it the exact same way again. Like the repeat party, a project planned on this basis is likely to be a flop.

Contrary to Einstein’s definition, in a socially complex system, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result!

(n.b. Dave Snowden has a classic story on organizing a child’s birthday party, and his story served as an inspiration for my version. You can find the story here. Thanks, Dave!)

Turning up the heat – the levels

(n.b. This section is still a work in progress. I’ve been finding it easier to explain the different levels by giving examples, i.e. symptoms, than by giving a long description).

Level 5: Burning
(results in team burnout and death marching)
At the burning level, the heat is too high. The stress level results in chaos, aggression, and a regression to primitive behaviour patterns. This is a dangerous level, since the high pressure increases the friction between the team members, increasing the heat even more.

Characteristic behaviour patterns for this level
•    Countless overtime hours leading to no result
•    Stress
•    Disagreements, fights
•    Sickness
•    Lack of communication
•    Inefficiency
•    Hectic
•    Blame
•    Restlessness
•    Self-preservation
•    Paralysis
•    Panic
•    Fear of attack

Level 4: Cooking

(ideal temperature for continuous improvement)
This is the optimal temperature for mixing up and forming teams. At this level, the heat is high enough to force disruption of behaviour patterns, but not so high that team members regress into pre-conventional mode.

Characteristic behaviour patterns for this level
•    Differences are resolved constructively
•    Continuous improvement
•    Enthusiasm
•    Work is fun
•    High productivity
•    Constructive discussions
•    Consensus
•    Joy
•    “We” – feeling
•    Self-reflection
•    Open discussions
•    Progress
•    Results
•    Creativity
•    Fun
•    High performance
•    Organised chaos
•    Good communication

Level 3: Cooling (Stagnation)
(discipline is lost and bad behaviour begins to fester)
If not enough heat is applied, or when things cool down after a while (entropy), a team enters the cooling or stagnating stage. In the kitchen, this is where what was once a fine-tasting soup has become a substrate for fungus and bacteria growth. Most health departments even have laws requiring cooked foods to be cooled down within a certain short period of time, as to pass through this stage as quickly as possible.

Characteristic behaviour patterns for this level
•    Slacking off
•    Work becomes routine
•    Loss of discipline
•    Monotony
•    Indifference
•    9 to 5
•    Too much discussion
•    Minimal communication

Level 2: Congealing

(team gets too comfortable to achieve and bad habits become the norm)
Increasing pressure to adhere to “norms“ – “that’s the way we do things here”

Characteristic behaviour patterns for this level
•    Change becomes difficult
•    Many meetings
•    Multiple implementation of work
•    Problems become difficult to solve, because everything’s a mass/mess
•    Boredom
•    Much talk, no action
•    Consensus becomes difficult
•    Resignation
•    Splitting of the teams into cliques
•    Everyone works for themselves
•    Minimalism
•    Defensive stance
•    Hiding behind procedures and rules

Level 1: Solid/frozen
(control takes over and change is no longer possible)
Inflexible, rigid burocracy – “that’s the way things are done!”

Characteristic behaviour patterns for this level
•    No interest or excitement
•    No initiative
•    No exchange or communication
•    No motivation
•    Standing still
•    CYA
•    Feeling of Powerlessness
•    Retreating to and hiding behind rules
•    Avoiding work
•    Lack of motivation

A topological observation of the heat model

An interesting observation, and one which may help explain the entropy analogy, is the fact that the characteristic behaviour patterns seen when the system cools down to the solidifying level and similar to the ones seen at the burning level. The system seems to wrap around topologically (spiral?), similar to the bottom section of the Cynefin butterfly model.

Turning up the heat – the basic model

In my first book excerpt, I described the idea behind the heat model. Here’s the model itself.

In the “turning up the heat” model, we differentiate between 5 different levels of heat: burning, cooking, cooling, congealing, and solidifying. It takes effort and energy to maintain any level of heat. The dissipation of heat in teams can be thought of as ‘social entropy’.  The natural forces of entropy as described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics apply as much to social organizations and interpersonal relationships as they do to molecules or galaxies.

Why do teams, even ones that are experiencing problems, not want to change? My thesis is that most of the time people and teams are in stasis and so resistant to change. To make change occur we have to raise the heat just enough people no longer feel comfortable in their current environment. I believe that when we see teams that stop doing TDD or other practices that it’s often because the heat has been turned off. Working in a rigorous fashion I recommend that we only make one change at a time in response to problems we want to improve. This allows us time to observe the system for retrospective coherence and adapt accordingly. It also reflects the fact that changes happen with a delay, and helps us to avoid over-correction (see Dörner’s example, later in this chapter).

The use of heat has analogy in cooking – most people on turn heat on or off but as coaches we need to understand the five levels. To connect the analogy:

Burning – food tastes burnt, teams fall apart.
Cooking – flavours in food are well integrated, teams adapt to new ideas
Cooling – bacteria grows in food, teams stagnate and start to stop using tools
Congealing – teams are starting to lose their flexibility and lock in their habits
Solid/Frozen – bureaucracy has set in, there are forms to fill out and sign offs

A coach needs to recognise the characteristics of a team in each of the stages. Most often, a team will be moving between levels, unless they’ve got to the state of complete burnout or complete stasis.

In the next book excerpt, we’ll look at the individual levels in more detail. It’s challenging for me to explain them, and I find that they’re most easily defined by example.