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The Powers of the Project Manager

One of the important topics for the PMP exam is “The Powers of the Project Manager”. There’s quite a bit of confusion on this topic specially because some of the powers are referred to by more than one name. And then the question – Which is the best form of power for a project manager? – comes up quite often too.

5 Basic Forms of Power of a Project Manager

There are 5 basic forms of powers that a Project Manager can possess:

  • Legitimate (or Formal): The formal authority or power derived from the position. It is also known as Formal power.
  • Reward: The power of directly or indirectly rewarding the team member. Rewards may be in the form of salary, promotion, bonus or better work assignments.
  • Penalty (or Coercive / Punishment): The power of directly or indirectly penalizing the team members. Penalty may be in the form of suspension, reprimand, unpleasant assignments etc. It is also known as Coercive power and Punishment power.
  • Expert: The power derived from special knowledge or expertise.
  • Referent (or Charisma): The power derived from personality traits or charisma. It is also known as Charisma power.

Difference between the forms of Power

Positional Powers vs Personal Powers

  • Positional powers are derived from the position of the project manager. Legitimate, Reward and Penalty powers are positional powers.
  • Personal powers are derived from the knowledge, expertise or personality traits of the project manager. Expert and Referent powers are personal powers.

Total Power

Total power = Positional Powers + Personal Powers

Power vs Authority

Power is the ability to get things done, whereas Authority is the formal power derived from one’s position in the organization.

Which is the best form of power for a Project Manager?

The best form of power depends upon the situation and the maturity level of the project manager. Generally speaking, personal powers (Expert and Referent) are better than positional powers (Legitimate, Reward and Penalty).

Additional notes

  • Reputation of the project manager is an example of Expert power.
  • Penalty power is unlikely to buy commitment from team members.
  • Expert and Referent powers are most effective in getting commitment from team members.
  • Legitimate and Reward powers are most effective in getting compliance from team members.
  • Functional managers hold more power than project managers in a matrix organization because the functional managers control human resources directly and provide a permanent home for project personnel to return to after completion of the project.
  • Penalty power is the worst choice in most situations.
  • The Project Charter grants formal powers to a Project Manager.

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