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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Advisory - Why middle-management power-play is not a bad thing

CEO Advisory

Why middle-management power-play is not a bad thing

Rebecca Houghton

Mid-level leaders are increasingly becoming recognised as the ‘power centre’ of organisational culture and performance.  As organisations become faster and more complex, it is inevitable that responsibility be devolved.  Put simply, decisions need to be made closer to the action, which means middle managers need to be empowered to make those calls, and make them well.  Evidence shows that highly effective managers drive 48% greater profits for their organisations than average managers, yet only 38% of CEO’s rate their middle managers as any good. There is a gap between those that are using power effectively and those that are not.

So what does power-play look like? 

We all know the leader who says ‘do it because I’m the boss and I say so’ or the parent who might say ‘do it or there will be consequences’.  In both cases, the individual has the authority, but is frustrated by their lack of influence so they are relying on coercive forms of power to get what they want.  Authority without influence often lends itself to this kind of negative power-play. Conversely, influence without authority is often gained through positive power-play.  

The humble engineer who is respected for their expertise – when they speak, people listen. The receptionist with all the relationships and their finger on the pulse.  These are individuals with no formal authority, but plenty of influence.  These corporate influencers are increasingly prized. All leaders have access to power but many leaders fail to recognise they have it, and as a result they fail to use it. Those who have both influence and authority tend to be a select few – who can be very powerful indeed.  

To make the shift from taking power from authority, the trait of a traditional middle manager, you need to adopt a key trait.  Being deliberate.  These leaders are deliberate about understanding where their personal power comes from, and they are deliberate about how they play with their power.  French and Raven identified that leadership power comes from 6 sources:

  1. Coercive: the threat of punishment to enforce behaviour 
  2. Reward: the use of reward to motivate behaviour 
  3. Legitimate: the use of your authority to obligate behaviours
  4. Referent: eg a social influencer that others admire and wish to emulate 
  5. Expert: the most common form of power in the workplace
  6. Information: using information to influence, such as media

And there are four golden rules to how to you play with your power:

  1. Develop your network and relationships – this will enhance your referent and informational power.
  2. Be generous with your power – share information and offer expertise, reward widely and often, and use your influence for others.  
  3. Beware misuse of power – if you make your power about you, use coercion or withhold other forms of power (such as information or referent), you’ll be seen as abusing your power.
  4. Position doesn’t always mean power, so use your legitimate power carefully – underplayed and you’re missing an opportunity, overplayed and it’ll undermine your influence. 

Identifying and developing your own power and ways to play with it will make you a more influential and effective leader.  Power-play allows you to influence beyond the scope of your authority to become a ‘B-Suite’ leader with real impact.


Written by Rebecca Houghton.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Advisory - Why middle-management power-play is not a bad thing
Rebecca Houghton
Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’ ($29.95), is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organisational, team and individual level. Her passion is helping to evolve how leaders think, take action and relate to others, working with leaders and leadership teams to achieve greater impact.


Rebecca Houghton is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.