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Power: The Functional Manager’s Meat and Project Manager’s Poison?
By Daniel Seet


Practical realism is said to be the driving force behind Henri Fayol’s 14 principles of management, which he outlined in 1949, to define the terms by which organizations should be effectively controlled. Over half a century later today, most of his principles, which include familiar themes like division of work, authority and responsibility, equity, order, and centralization, among others, continue to stand the test of time and serve as key philosophies behind current organizational management practices 1. Of particular interest in this paper, however, is the principle of unity of command and the ideological dilemma between reporting along clear lines of hierarchical accountability and control, and the flexibility that is needed by project teams in order to get the job done.

According to Fayol, unity of command requires employees to receive orders from, and consequently, answer only to one superior. Once violated, the organization’s discipline, order and stability will be threatened 2. But given the dynamic and demanding nature of today’s markets, it is counter-intuitive for organizations today to adhere to this. Price says as much when he acknowledges that modern organizational theory has seen some increasingly sophisticated hierarchic designs that contradict Fayol 1. Yet for all the advancements made in this area, organizations following a matrix design (not to be confused with the matrix ideology, which is a descriptor of an organizational culture type) to meet the increasingly project-oriented environment, seem unable to escape the power trap that plague project teams and functional units.

Why is this so? According to Cleland and Ireland, the matrix design – although a formal structure – is supposed to be a flexible arrangement to be negotiated between project team leaders and functional managers. In project management jargon, this is known as the project-functional interface. Projects are horizontal in nature because they need a composition of skills and expertise from across the organization’s functional units to complete the objectives. On the other hand, functional departments, as exemplified by traditional organizational charts, are vertical entities. On paper, the dichotomy between these two entities is supportive of one another. While the project manager is concerned with what is to be done, the functional manager thinks about how the task will be done. The project manager wonders about when to do it, but the functional manager looks at where the job will be. The project manager looks at how well the whole job is completed whereas the functional manager looks at how well his own aspect has been integrated into the project. Each has different, but complementary, concerns 3. Well, on paper, at least.

In reality, the project-functional interface is more like a project management dirty word describing the state of divided loyalties individuals face when they have to answer to two bosses – the project manager and their functional manager. According to project management guru Dr Harold Kerzner, unless project managers and functional managers work together, the project team performance often suffers as team members tend to bend towards their functional managers, who control their purse strings 4. Thus, in what is a tussle for power and territory, the project-functional interface dichotomy discussed earlier may be summarized this way: while project managers contemplate who they can pick from the functional departments to staff their teams, functional managers are often asking why they should release their talents if it only seems to benefit the project managers.

The puzzle becomes crystal clear when we realize that in a matrix organization, project or program managers may have a lot of delegated authority but they rarely have much formal authority of their own 5. Whereas project-centered organizations like those in engineering, construction or the aerospace industries have structures built around project teams as their functional units, matrix organizations basically follow the traditional structures, with some adjustments to their hierarchy to support project units. Under such artificial conditions, control is centered around the functional managers. Hence, in bargaining about staffing arrangements for example, the lack of formal authority puts project managers at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Of course, this assumes the worse, where the functional manager and the project manager are at odds with each other. But say we consider it hypothetically for argument’s sake, it really begs the question of how project managers are expected to succeed in such conditions – both within, and outside of the team? The answer, it seems, lies in their interpersonal skills. Cleland and Ireland argue that to get things done, project managers operate by influence, and must work through others and manage relationships on three dimensions. “Upward,” they say, “project managers must relate to their bosses, who are either general managers or managers of projects. Horizontally, they must relate to members of their project team. Diagonally, they [need to] relate to functional managers and other representatives outside the organization 3.”

As project managers seek more leverage in their negotiation with the functional managers, the notion of parity of power in their relationship becomes a very important concept. The Negotiation Training Academy suggests that as one party wields some form of power, it is imperative for the other party to create a perception that they are able to counter the situation with a similar or different form of power that would render any further escalation of power needless 6. According to Kerzner, building their interpersonal powers of influence may be one of the ways for project managers to level the playing field somewhat. He cites the 1959 research by French and Raven on the five interpersonal bases of [influential] power that are critical in the negotiation process: legitimate power, reward power, coercive power, expert power, and referent power 5.

Legitimate power comes from the ability to influence due to one’s hierarchy, where people at higher levels have power over those below. One’s subordinates are key in this equation because this influence exists only when they accept a power as legitimate and complies with the leader. In some literature, legitimate power is also known as normative power 7. The organization’s culture, customs and value systems often interact to determine the limit of this category of power 6. In this sense, legitimate power tends to have more gravitas in organizations whose ideology is power-driven, where influence and governance emanate from a central authority, and people are dependent on that source of power 8. It also applies to places that are role-driven, where heavy emphasis is placed on bureaucracies built upon legality, responsibility, policies, and procedures 9.

On the other hand, reward power is used to support and reinforce legitimate power when leaders recognize compliance to their directions and orders through awards, monetary remunerations, and promotions. Rewards may also come in the form of verbal and non-verbal expressions like verbal praise, the nodding of heads, showing of respect, and many others. The administration of rewards may further encourage employees in responding to subsequent orders, requests, and directions – this is the driver behind this source of influence 6. In my opinion, reward power is effective in all organizational cultures, as people desire to be appreciated for their efforts. Perhaps the greater challenge lies in understanding rewards and recognition not as a one-size-fits-all approach, but as a customized approach according to the specific needs of the employees 10.

The antithesis of reward power is coercive power, which is the perceived ability to punish those who do not conform to the leader’s ideas or demands 7. This power could take the form of a threat to withhold an anticipated transfer, a bonus payout, or it could even be the threat of a job suspension, or litigation action. The common denominator is the use of fear to coerce people into certain actions and directions 6. Psychologist and management theorist Fredrick Herzberg warns of severe downsides with the use of force that moves, but not motivates, people towards organizational goals. While short-term goals may be reached, the long-term consequences are loss of distrust and satisfaction 11. Like rewards, the use of force tends to be effective under all organizational types. However, it certainly has more weight in a power-ideology organization, and to a lesser extent, a role-driven one.

A person with an expertise that is highly valued by the organization will possess what is known as expert power. These people have some degree of power and influence, whatever their hierarchic status is. The knowledge may revolve around line or support functions, and in general, the harder it is to replace them, the greater the degree of power they will have. Sometimes also known as information power, expertise is usually an individual trait 6. Experts often wield the most clout in task-driven environments, where there is no ideological commitment to order, hierarchy and procedure, only to what is most beneficial to the success of the job 12. Decisions are made by those with the mastery in the knowledge-area required by the task at hand. Experts may also develop influence in power and role organizations, but this depends on how persuasive they are in making their case to those in power with the information and knowledge they have.

The last social power base to be discussed is personal, charismatic, or, referent power. This is the appeal seen in some celebrities, as well as individuals in sports, politics, and religion, among others. Hollingworth says that charisma is ascribed to those who have a unique mix of physical traits, personality, and self-confidence, which enables them to influence and mobilize large numbers of people 13. Referent power stems from the need of individuals to identify with the magnetic nature of influential or attractive people. The greater the admiration and identification, the more referent influence is exerted by the power holder 14. As this depends entirely on individual appeal, people in positions of great power and status, or those with expertise, will most likely possess a matrix of both referent power, as well as legitimate, or expert influences.

Coming back to the issue of the project-functional interface, and having discussed at length about the different social power bases in the organization, what does this all mean for project managers? I would like to propose the following six broad suggestions for them in terms of building up their interpersonal appeal and influence in a matrix project environment:

  1. Understand the dominant ideology (power, role, task, or matrix of the three) of the organization and how it influences the culture and systems. This is the strategic big-picture that project managers have to develop, even before considering issues such as the project-functional interface, as it determines the overarching communication needs. It is also important to conduct an audience analysis to know the preferred communication styles, and even personality traits, of key members of the main stakeholder groups: the senior management (or project sponsor), project team members, as well as functional managers and customers.
  2. Customize the communication approach with the various stakeholders. For example, if the functional manager is a tough person to deal with, avoid communicating through email but have face-to-face dialogues in his or her office instead. This shows sincerity and openness, and it also allows project managers to understand the counterpart’s concerns (e.g. concurrent projects where the same staff is needed). Very often, the functional managers know they must support the organization’s goals. However, it is imperative to secure their personal buy-in so that it relieves their staff from any split-loyalty dilemma. Whether long-term trust is built depends largely on how communication of intentions is done in the first place.
  3. Expand one’s level of subject-matter expertise and field of knowledge. While most of the social power bases covered in this paper may not fall within the direct control of the project manager, one area is, and that is the job or task expertise. Being known to be a knowledgeable person on the job is extremely vital in building one’s expert power influence, and this is really an area that project managers can dictate how far they wish to go. Possessing expert power also helps to bolster their referent power, and this makes being part of their project team an attractive proposition, as people will be drawn by the appeal of learning under their tutelage.
  4. Be judicious in the use of rewards and threats (in fact, use coercion only as the last resort, or better still, avoid it totally). While project managers want to avoid excessively rewarding people for doing jobs that they are recruited to do, but neither would they wish to have a crisis of motivation due to a failure to communicate appropriate feedback or encouragement. Clear and continuous feedback is necessary for sure. But one thing is clear: coercion is a dead-end approach and once people embark on this track, they immediately diminish in terms of their referent, and even legitimate power. In addition to losing the trust of the team members, the relationship with the functional managers may even be jeopardized. Of course, non-performers must be counseled or disciplined, but if it comes to that, the respective functional managers must be informed and involved.
  5. Keep functional managers updated on the progress of their staff, and the development of the project as a whole. This should be done on a regular basis, and especially after any update to the senior management or project sponsor. It is both a respectful and appropriate gesture. By doing so, it is also a subtle application of reward power to show one’s appreciation for the support given by the functional managers because, at their level, they will desire to be kept abreast of ongoing developments, especially if certain feedback or comments received from the senior management may implicate their departments.
  6. Be sure to uphold promises and agreements. This is especially vital if there are certain arrangements made with the functional managers about how long their staff would be needed on the project team. Like how project deadlines must be adhered to, any internal arrangements must also be honored. Project managers must remember that their integrity (remember referent power) is on the line, and a reputation as a trustworthy partner will go a long way in securing further support for other projects down the line. If an extension is needed, project managers must try to work out some alternatives with the functional managers, but at no time should they assume things in their own favor.


The six broad suggestions discussed are just that: tips and recommendations, not ends in themselves. Negotiating the project-functional interface requires project managers to exercise considerable situational leadership to meet the strategic, tactical, operational and communicative needs of the environment. Nevertheless, it is clear that success or failure will hinge on how well they juggle their interpersonal relationships and approach issues like authority and territorial boundaries. After all, as Cleland and Ireland put it aptly, project success is ultimately about how the web of relationships is managed within the total organization 3. Power does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum game in a project environment. With careful cultivation of the social influence bases, it could well remain as the functional manager’s meat, but also serve as the project manager’s elixir to more supportive relationships on the road to project and organizational success.

1 Price, A. (2008). Classical organizational theory: Henri Fayol. In HRM Guide: Classical organizational theory.
2 Jarvis, C. (2005). Fayol (1841-1925) Functions and Principles of Management. In Business open learning archive.
3 Cleland, D. I. & Ireland, L. R. (2007). Chapter 9 – Organizing for project management. In Project management: Strategic design and implementation (5th ed., pp. 190-194). New York: McGraw-Hill Professional.
4 Kerzner, H. (2006). Chapter 4 – The staffing environment. In Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling (9th ed., pp. 140-141). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
5 Kerzner, H. (2006). Chapter 5 – Management functions. In Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling (9th ed., p. 206). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
6 Negotiator power authority. (2008). Parity of power. In Negotiation Training Academy.
7 Bases of social power. (2008). Identifying sources of power: Explanation of bases of social power of French and Raven.
8 Onepine. (2005, March 11). Charles Handy. In People whose ideas influence organisational work.
9 BBC. (n.d.). The Handy guide to the gurus of management.
10 Nelson, B. (2005). Introduction. In 1001 ways to reward employees (pp. 3-4). New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.
11 Herzberg, F. (1991). One more time: How do you motivate employees? In Motivation (pp. 7-13). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review. (Original work published 1963)
12 Interaction Media Group. (2008). Ideologies.
13 Hollingworth, J. E. (2008, October 27). Leadership, peer relationships, and upward communication. Lecture presented at class on Organizational Communication, Emerson College (Walker Building, 504), Boston.
14 Ratzburg, W.H. (n.d.). Power defined: Bases and sources of power. In Organizational behavior.

Daniel Seet is a member of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), a public emergency response agency that provides 24hrs fire fighting, rescue, hazardous materials mitigation and emergency ambulance services in the island republic. Having been with the SCDF for close to 10 years, Daniel has seen tour of duties with two fire stations, as well as served as a media relations officer in the agency’s public affairs department. As part of his career development, Daniel is currently pursuing his graduate degree in Communication Management with Emerson College in Boston. Broadly, his interests include the study of management and leadership – and their interplay in the discipline of project management – as well as crisis communication, public affairs and the impact of new and emerging online social media on public communication practices and policies.

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