This month we will cover the need for Power.

Recall, safety and health professionals motivated by Power are driven by personal power or institutional power, also known as social power.  Personal power individuals posses a strong desire to control others; institutional or social power seekers reach out to bring people together and influence them to work toward a common organizational goal.1

Although many of you will shy away from the term Power, based on research by McClelland and Burnham2 it is important to note that “the term ‘power motivation’ here refers not to dictatorial behavior, but to a desire to have impact, to be strong and influential.”                       

Personal power motivation

Most safety and health professionals I have known are not motivated by personal power, which is characterized by:

  • A strong desire to control others or force others to behave in a manner according to their wishes.
  • Manipulates others to undertake their work and then takes credit for the work.
  • High desire to win arguments.
  • A strong desire to move up in the organization through controlling others.
  • Tends to work best when they are in charge.
  • Enjoys status and recognition.
  • Has a higher willingness to take risks.
  • Directs others for their own personal advancement and benefit.

Institutional or social power motivation

Most of the more successful safety and health professionals I have worked with during the years derive their motivation from institutional power, characterized by:

  • Enjoys organizing the efforts of a team to deliver the company’s goals and objectives.
  • Persuades others through opportunities for group or individual input.
  • A strong desire to move up in the organization through influencing others.
  • Tends to influence others’ success more than achieve new goals himself or socialize with his subordinates.
  • Creates and projects a strong sense of team spirit.
  • Tends to sacrifice their own self-interest for the interest of the group.
  • Directs others for the advancement of the institution.

Managing power-motivated employees

Managers of safety and health professionals exhibiting a high need for Power should allow opportunities for their professionals to manage other people as long as the manager knows which type of power-seeker motivation they favor.  If the safety or health professional is high in Personal Power, he or she will likely be prone to manipulating techniques to achieve goals that make him or her look good in management’s eyes. 

If the safety or health professional is motivated by Institutional Power, he or she will use influencing skills to accomplish the goals and objectives that will benefit the organization while acknowledging the contributions of the team to complete the work.

What about your boss?

In all likelihood Institutional Power motivates your boss if: 1) your boss fosters a sense of team spirit within the department or group he or she manages; 2) your boss exhibits fairness in decision-making; 3) your boss encourages you to recognize how the company will benefit from your work; and 4) your boss tends to influence you to be more productive.

 For those of you fortunate enough to be working for such a boss, pay close attention to how he or she manages you and your peers.  Note the influencing approaches he or she uses with his or her boss, other leaders in the company, and subordinates.

Interestingly, McClelland and Burnham3 found Institutional Power managers often expressed signs of controlled action or inhibition; in other words, they tended to exercise their power on behalf of someone else, which they call the “socialized” face of power. 

Further, McClelland and Burnham4 found four major characteristics of Institutional Power managers: 1) they are organization-minded, believing strongly in centralized authority; 2) they like the discipline of work and getting things done in an orderly manner; 3) they are willing to sacrifice some of their own self-interest for the welfare of the organization; and 4) they are keen on justice and rewarding institutional contributory work. 

From a maturity perspective, McClelland and Burnham5 noted that the Institutional Power manager was less egotistic, less defensive, more willing to seek advice from experts, has a longer range view, accumulates fewer personal possessions, and seems older and wiser.

Personal power bosses

If you have the misfortune of working for such a boss, be mindful of some of their attributes.  McClelland and Burnham6 noted that Personal Power managers tend to make so many ad hominem and ad hoc decisions that they abandon orderly procedures, leaving employees with a feeling of weakness and vulnerability not knowing what to expect next from their boss. 

Managers motivated by Personal Power are also high in Affiliation, resulting in their employees being loyal to them as individuals instead of the organization. Bosses with high Affiliation have an unusually high need for being liked, and often play favorites with subordinates.

A huge downside of a very likeable Personal Power boss occurs when the boss makes a bad decision and his loyal followers come to his or her defense, reassuring the boss that everything is OK, which results in the boss not having any pressure to change.7  

Recent developments

My colleague and friend, David Burnham,8 has continued his research into the Institutional Power leader through his consultancy and has discovered that outstanding leaders continue to have strong Power motive, but their orientation toward Power has evolved.  In his 1970s research with McClelland, Burnham notes the Institutional Leader saw the self as the source of power. His latest research shows that the source of power comes from others.

Burnham’s research has led to the new model leader called the InterActive Leader™.  As organizations move closer to team-based, collaborative, non-hierarchical, and flexible structures, the InterActive Leader™ will play a dominant role in their success.


1  McClelland, D.C. 1987.  Human Motivation.  Cambridge University Press. New York, NY.
2  McClelland, D.C. and D.H. Burnham. 1976. Power is a Great Motivator.  Harvard Business Review.  54(2): 100-110.
3  Ibid. pp. 103.
4  Ibid. pp. 105-106.
5  Ibid. pp. 106.
6  Ibid. pp. 104.
7  Ibid. pp. 109.
8  Burnham, D.H. 1997. Power is Still the Great Motivator – With a Difference! Burnham Rosen Group, LLC. At