The Power-Deficient Executive

Have you ever held a job title or thought you had the formal authority to make decisions or implement change, but found yourself pushed to the side or completely ignored?

Thought so.

In fact, it isn’t unusual for the most senior executives to find themselves power deficient at some point in their careers. Yes, even the high-performing superstars.

The Summer 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review features an interesting study by Jean-Louis Barsoux and Cyril Bouquet. In How To Overcome a Power Deficit, this phenomenon is explored through a role coined the “power-deficient executive” (PDE for short). 179 executives from 49 countries and 45 different industries participated in this 2 year research.

3 Sources of Power

Barsoux and Bouquet note that power and influence are dependent on the interplay between 3 sources: legitimacy, critical resources and networks. If any one of those sources are out of whack, you’re in for a lot of frustration.

1. Legitimacy

A lack of legitimacy or credibility may exist because people don’t know you, or question your motives, or want to protect themselves. According to Barsoux and Bouquet:

the vast majority of bosses tend to treat their direct reports as part of either an “in group” or an “out group.” Studies suggest that, once someone has been unconsciously consigned to the “out group,” the chances of entering the “in group” are limited.

Strategies to overcome lack of legitimacy and get yourself associated with the “in group” include:

  • Uncover people’s preferences and adjust your style.
  • Draw attention to your efforts and accomplishments. Subtly.
  • Become the go-to person by distinguishing yourself as an expert in a skill or area.

2. Critical Resources

If the “power-deficient executive”(PDE) is not a part of the “in group”, it becomes much more difficult to secure the best people, assignments, sales territories, etc. The researchers advocate, (somewhat unintuitively), that highly prized resources come when the PDE creates an obligation of reciprocity.

Strategies to accumulate credit through reciprocity (which will make people feel obligated to send resources your way) include:

  • Help others solve high-stress problems.
  • Ease others’ burdens.
  • Take on projects/tasks others don’t want.
  • Build relationships with people lower down in the hierarchy.

The underlying premise of this power source is to remember that influencing others when you need something from them doesn’t work well. It’s sketchy. Making deposits and creating an environment of reciprocity is much more effective.

3. Networks

Executives who don’t have a strong network, or have to rely on their boss’s network are extremely vulnerable.

Strategies to enhance your network, and therefore your power and influence include:

  • Understand if your boss is a PDE.
  • Create a network independent of your boss’s. You want your network to stand on its own, even if the boss leaves.
  • Build connections with influencers and opinion leaders.
  • Find allies beyond formal titles – uncover the true power brokers, regardless of title.
  • Bring people together across silos and organizational divisions.

All three sources of power: legitimacy, resources and networks must be addressed together. Rarely are just one or two at play in isolation – they are closely connected.

The good news is that the strategies work. Of the 179 executives who found themselves in a power-deficit scenario, only 4 noted no improvement.

Hurry up. The “in group” is calling your name.

Marta Steele is a Partner and Community Manager at PeopleResults. Connect with her on Twitter @MartaSteele or through email at