The power and influence theory – what every leader needs to understand

You might remember the Likert scale. That’s the survey format that measures how people feel about something. The Likert scale gives 5 to 7 choices of balanced variation. i.e., strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree, etc. Created by Dr. Rensis Likert it is used often in business. That same Rensis Likert also did a fair bit of work in the area of management and organizational psychology. In fact, he’s considered one of the primary developers of what today is called ‘participative management’.

So, one of Likert’s works that I admire is what he called the ‘power and influence theory.’ It goes like this:

Leaders can actually increase their own power by giving more of it to their subordinates. Members of a working group who see themselves as influencing their superior are more likely in turn to perceive their superior as influential than are those groups whose members feel they have little influence on their superiors.

Let me ask that you go back and re-read that.

We should note that the word ‘power’ in Likert’s statement is not meant to mean power in a pejorative or hurtful way. It’s power with a small ‘p.’ Call it authority if you will. His point is that when we as leaders let go of it (power, authority) and give more to those we are leading, ironically it serves to only heighten the influence (and yes, power) that we are perceived to have by those we lead. By giving ‘power away’ leaders become more influential. Odd that if we try hard to be the leader it doesn’t take hold with our people. Yet, if we learn to let go, the teams see us as a stronger leader. Paradoxical perhaps?

It’s not uncommon for those early in their careers to enjoy a position of leadership so much that they just can’t let go. This manifests in the leader who has to be the one out in front all the time. For these individuals the privilege of authority sets in and they enjoy the spotlight too much. Thankfully, as one matures in her/his leadership roles, they often learn to let go. They learn to have their team members give the report, summarize the plan of action, lead a project -and – reap the attention from it.

To appreciate the value in Likert’s power and influence theory, one simply needs to ask themselves who they’d rather work for – the person who takes point on all the important things because s/he is the leader – or the person who often lets the people being led run out in front? Assuming it’s the latter, then why not be that person? It’ll do your career good while also developing those who work for you. And from there you can start talking about your legacy.

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