Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Power, Theory, Sociology, Organization, Public, Management, Theater, Decision

Pages: 10

Words: 2750

Published: 2020/12/13


In “Understanding the Role of Power in Decision Making”, Pfeffer (1981) claimed that motivations pertaining to power influence people’s decisions, especially in the workplace or the organizational setting. Pfeffer set out to discuss different dimensions and elements of power to establish and support the author’s theory that the pursuit of, legitimacy, and existence of power affects people’s decisions. Although Pfeffer’s arguments apply in different aspect of our life – from personal to professional relationships – the author focused on power and decision-making within the context of the organization. Pfeffer also discussed power and decision making within the context of politics.
Our primary goal in doing a close reading and analyzing Pfeffer’s (1981) theory on power and decision making is to assess the author’s arguments and discussions based on his purpose, main thesis, and the strengths and weaknesses of the text. Hence, the succeeding discussion explores Pfeffer’s theory and arguments, and the strengths and weaknesses of the texts. Furthermore, the succeeding discussion critiques Pfeffer’s work based on the author’s ability to support his main thesis and arguments and the relevance of the author’s theory in public administration.

Analysis and Application of Pfeffer’s Theory on Power and Decision Making

As formerly noted, Pfeffer’s (1981) purpose in writing the article was to prove that power influences decision making, particularly in the organizational setting. From reading Pfeffer’s discussion and arguments, one is able to identify the dimensions of power. Figure 1 below may be used as a guide in understanding Pfeffer’s theory.
Figure 1. Critical Illustration of Pfeffer’s Theory
Figure 1 above illustrates Pfeffer’s main arguments in the article. The figure illustrates my own visualization of Pfeffer’s theory as I read the author’s article. The dimensions of power include the social actor whose power is relative to the power of other social actors, the structure that influences the distribution of power, the legitimacy of power to establish the social actor’s authority, and the expenditure of resources when the social actor utilizes his or her power and authority.
One of the dimensions of power is the social actor (Pfeffer, 1981, p. 277). Social actors refer to individuals or groups who may or may not have power. The power of a social actor affects the power of other social actors. Hence, the power of social actors is relative to the amount of power a social actor has. If a social actor has more power, then the other social actors would have less power compared to him or her (Pfeffer, p. 278). For this reason, Pfeffer argued that power establishes the context of an individual or social actor. Essentially, the amount of power an individual has defines his role because power determines the limits of what he or she can or cannot do. In the organization, for instance, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) has more power than his or her subordinates. Moreover, department heads or managers also have more power than their subordinates. Nonetheless, the CEO is more powerful than the managers. Based on this example, power defines the roles and responsibilities of individuals in the organization. People that have more power, particularly in tall organizations that follow hierarchy, have more responsibilities and less limitations when it comes to exercising their power (Pfeffer, p. 283).
Another element of power, aside from the social actor, is the structure (Pfeffer, 1981, p. 278). In the discussion, Pfeffer used the organization as an example to show that the structure affects or influences power. In tall, hierarchical organizations, there is an imbalance in the distribution of power because the ones on top of the hierarchy are more powerful than the ones at the bottom. Organizational structure, however, differs. Not all organizations follow a hierarchical structure. Other organizations follow a flat structure, while others follow both a hierarchical and flat structure (Pfeffer, p. 283). Both structures affect the distribution of power. While the hierarchical structure creates an imbalance in the distribution of power, flat organizations aim to create balance in distribution. Within this context, the structure of organizations, therefore, affect the distribution of power. Similarly, the power that an entity or department in the organization has is relative to the power of other entities or departments in the organization.
The third dimension of power is legitimacy (Pfeffer, 1981, p. 278). Apparently, the exercise of power does not necessarily follow its existence. A social actor may have power but he or she may or may not exercise it. Furthermore, in some cases, power exists but certain factors will not allow social actors to exercise their power. In these situations, legitimacy is necessary. Consequently, if power is legitimated, then the social actor gains the authority to exercise power. Legitimacy plays an important role in the organizational setting. If we look into politics, we would see the importance of legitimacy (Pfeffer, p. 279). A political position grants power to individuals. For a social actor to exercise his or her power as a politician, however, he or she must be legitimated through elections or other means.
The legitimacy of power points to an important aspect of Pfeffer’s (1981) theory, which is the institutionalization of social control (Pfeffer, p. 279). If we are to look into the political sphere, the legitimacy of power bestowed upon public officials institutionalizes social control. Political officials exercise control, which then affects society at large. Public officials in position have the power to affect people’s way of life as they are responsible for instituting and implementing policies and other programs within communities. As a result, public officials’ constituents acknowledge the power and authority of the former. In this way, the legitimacy of power creates social control, as well as order in society.
Pfeffer’s example involves organizational life. Social control in the workplace, according to Pfeffer, manifest in the way that individuals follow rules and guidelines implemented by the management. As an employee in the organization, one needs to follow established rules and guidelines. The leaders of the organization are the ones that create and decide rules and guidelines that would be implemented in the workplace. Consequently, authority of leaders or the management in the organization establishes social control such that power shapes and influences the actions and behaviors of employees in the workplace.
The fourth dimension of power is resource (Pfeffer, 1981, p. 278). Pfeffer argued that when a social actor exercises power, he or she would more likely expend resources. After being legitimated as a source of power and thus, gaining the authority to exercise power, if the social actor chooses to do so, the action would lead to an expenditure of resources.
Pfeffer used Harold Laswell’s (1936) definition of politics to establish the fundamental concepts of power. According to Laswell, politics is essentially a practice that determines who, what, when, and how individuals receive their needs and demands. Although Laswell’s definition pertained to politics, it may also be used to describe power as well. Essentially, power may be defined by determining who, when, and how they receive or gain, and use power for specific goals or objectives.
Pfeffer’s (1981) theory explains the role of power in decision making (p. 277). According to Pfeffer, power exists in different forms in our daily lives in particular. In the organization, for instance, decision-making, the delegation of tasks and responsibilities, and the flow of operations all depend on the movement and distribution of power. In the organization, we observe an interplay between power and politics such that those who are capable of obtaining power to their advantage are also skilled in ‘playing politics’, so to speak, in the workplace. Furthermore, the allocation of budget to departments and individuals in the organization, that is who receives rewards and incentives, also depend on people’s ability to use or sway power to their benefit. The same principle applies in politics and other similar situations where people stand to gain something out of their interactions with other people.
Power may also be described or viewed from the perspective of human behavior. Pfeffer cited examples where human being’s actions, behavior, and decisions are sometimes driven by their need or demand for power. The influence of power on human behavior is most palpable in politics. Often, politicians and other people in public office make decisions based on the expected outcomes on the distribution of power.
Although power exists in different aspects of our daily lives, existing literature as well as discussion particularly in the organizational setting do not include power in the discourse. Pfeffer argued that this should not be the case especially because power may be used to frame and understand different situations and contexts, including those that exist in the workplace. Pfeffer argued that research studies about the organization do not include power because it is an ambiguous concept, which does not fully encapsulate issues pertaining to relationships and interactions in the workplace. Furthermore, research studies and discourse about organizations do not include power because of its implications and negative connotations. Pfeffer’s arguments are factual considering our own experiences in our personal and professional lives. When we talk about power or mention ‘power’ in our conversations with other people, the word connotes something negative. Power in itself only means the ‘level of influence’ or ‘authority’. Nonetheless, when we apply it to our day-to-day experiences, power connotes struggle and conflict. Issues of power in the organization, for instance, means that people in the organization struggle due to the imbalance of power or the demand of individuals or groups in the workplace for power.
Pfeffer also argued that a clear understanding of power must stem from people’s use of the term within context. According to Pfeffer, when power is used to define concepts or phenomena in different settings or situations, its definition eventually becomes vague. On the contrary, people may establish a clear and understandable definition of power if people define it within a specific context. For Pfeffer, his exploration and definition of power are within the context of the organizational setting and the influence of power in decision-making.
Furthermore, Pfeffer applied existing theories to support the author’s discussions. Pfeffer’s arguments and statements are justifiable because they were supported with various theories that long explain phenomena. Furthermore, Pfeffer was able to establish the link or relationship between power and decision making by integrating different models, such as the decision process model and the political models of the organization.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Pfeffer’s Theory

One of the strengths of Pfeffer’s discussion about his theory on power and decision-making is that the author cited existing literature in the form of research studies and scholarly sources to support the discussion. Throughout the discussion, Pfeffer supported arguments and discussion about concepts and theories on power and decision-making with primary and secondary sources. Most of these source explored power within the context of the organization.
Pfeffer (1981) also established a comprehensive view of power and decision making by discussing this dynamic from multiple perspectives – social, psychological, and political. Throughout the discussion, Pfeffer applied different theories that define power in different contexts. Power in politics, for instance, is influential when it is legitimate. Without legitimacy in politics, social actors would not be able to exercise their power. Furthermore, Pfeffer discussed power and decision making from a psychological standpoint. According to Pfeffer, a human being’s behavior is not a product of impulse but rather of controlled, calculated, and deliberate decisions. To support this claim, Pfeffer related rational choice models to prove the foregoing point (Pfeffer, p. 282). According to Pfeffer, “a rational choice involves selecting that course of action or that alternative which maximizes the social actor’s likelihood of attaining the highest value for achievement of the preferences or goals in the objective function” (p. 283).
Since Pfeffer’s theory applies to the organizational setting, the author also integrated various organizational theories to establish the link between power and decision making in the organization. Pfeffer, for instance, integrated the theory of structuralism to support the social aspect of power. To establish the link between Pfeffer’s theory in the organizational setting, the author discussion organizational models. All in all, the author used different models, theories, and concepts to illustrate the application of Pfeffer’s theory in the organizational setting. Pfeffer supported his theory with existing theories and models.
On the contrary, Pfeffer’s theory’s weakness lays in the complexity of the author’s arguments. Prior to discuss the link or relationship between power and decision making, Pfeffer discussed many theories and concepts. The discussion appears to be fragmented into different topics that all relate to power and decision making. In the end, however, Pfeffer failed to tie everything up in order to converge on the author’s main thesis, which is that power influences decision making. Pfeffer wrote a summary of the article but with all the complex theories, models, and concepts discussed previously, the author should have added a comprehensive synthesis of how all these elements work together to illustrate the effect of power on decision making in organizations and politics.

Relevance of Pfeffer’s Theory in Public Administration

Public administration essentially refers to the practice of implementing policies, and assessing and studying the implementation of these policies. Furthermore, public administration also involves guiding public officials so they would be able to fulfill their roles and responsibilities appropriately. Pfeffer’s theory focuses on the link between power and decision making. Pfeffer’s theory applies to public administration particularly because social control is the outcome of legitimated power that comes with authority. I cited the election of an officer as an example to prove this point. Social control is relevant in public administration because public policies implemented by public officials are means to establish control. Through policies, the government is able to impose upon its constituents, and implement law, rules, and guidelines. For this reason, Pfeffer’s theory applies in public administration because decision making necessitates the maintenance of power and authority among public officials. Doing so would contribute to the status quo – public officials have the power to represent the needs and demands of their constituents through appropriate decision making and policy implementation.
Furthermore, Pfeffer’s theory applies to public administration because in politics, public officials are elected by the people who select during the elections based on the candidates’ ability to represent their needs and demands. Hence, their votes give public officials the power when they win to make political decisions through policy development and implementation. Public administration then needs to make decisions based on considerations of power. Policies that public officials develop and implement must benefit the public because they elected public officials by giving the latter the power to represent their interests and concerns.
Another aspect of Pfeffer’s theory involves a guiding notion in measuring power. According to Pfeffer, measuring power means predicting the outcome or effect of the absence of power, determining the intentions of the social actor exercising power, and determining the effect of the social actor’s actions after exercising power. Pfeffer’s description of measuring power applies to the practice of public administration. As formerly noted, public administration involves the implementation and assessment of implementation of policies. Public administration needs to measure or assess power to determine how policies would affect outcomes for the community. Furthermore, public administrators need to determine the effect of policies in order to understand


The foregoing discussion not only explores Pfeffer’s theory but also rationalizes the author’s claims and arguments when it comes to power and decision making. Pfeffer’s arguments were restated in the discussion but were also applied in different real life situations or contexts. Hence, based on the application of Pfeffer’s theory, we may surmise that the author’s offered prescriptions applies universally. I believe that as long as the dimensions (See Figure 1) of power, as discussed by Pfeffer, exists, the author’s theory applies in any situation.
In the foregoing discussion, we applied Pfeffer’s theory beyond the organization. Pfeffer’s theory applies to power in politics such that public officials gain power after gaining legitimacy through their election or appointment as officers. Furthermore, Pfeffer’s theory applies in our understanding of the structures in society. If we look into the socio-economic sphere, we could also apply Pfeffer’s theory in social situations. Upward social mobility, for instance, allows the distribution of power among the social classes. Within this context, power equates to financial capacity and independence. Hence, some of the dimensions of power are present – the social actor and the resources. If the social actor gains capital by finishing a degree at a university, the individual gains power in terms of gaining the capability to apply for positions in organizations. He has more power over other people who remain incapable of finishing high school or higher education. Power in this scenario is defined by the ability of social actors to expend resources to their advantage. Aside from the dimensions of power, Pfeffer’s theory also applies to organizations and politics. As formerly noted, Pfeffer’s theory applies to public administration. It also applies to other issues such as interpersonal relationships with others.


Pfeffer, J. (1981). “Understanding the Role of Power in Decision Making”. In J. M. Shafritz, J. S. Ott, and Y. S. Jang’s (Eds.) Classics of Organization Theory, 7th Ed. Florence, KY: Cengage Learning.

Cite this page
Choose cite format:
  • APA
  • MLA
  • Harvard
  • Vancouver
  • Chicago
  • ASA
  • IEEE
  • AMA
WePapers. (2020, December, 13) Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from
"Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example." WePapers, 13 Dec. 2020, Accessed 27 May 2024.
WePapers. 2020. Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example., viewed May 27 2024, <>
WePapers. Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example. [Internet]. December 2020. [Accessed May 27, 2024]. Available from:
"Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example." WePapers, Dec 13, 2020. Accessed May 27, 2024.
WePapers. 2020. "Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example." Free Essay Examples - Retrieved May 27, 2024. (
"Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example," Free Essay Examples -, 13-Dec-2020. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 27-May-2024].
Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Theory Essays Example. Free Essay Examples - Published Dec 13, 2020. Accessed May 27, 2024.

Share with friends using:

Related Premium Essays
Contact us
Chat now