Here's a wordy ASWB exam content outline topic for quick review: The relationship between formal and informal power structures in the decision-making process. You may wonder, "What's the ASWB getting at here?" This is some of the more organization-tilting material that seems somewhat irrelevant, so often gets skipped by exam preppers. Not by you! Both formal and informal power structures influence how decisions are made, implemented, and accepted within a workplace or community. Let's break down the topic then look at how might the topic appear on the social work licensing exam.

Formal Power Structures

Formal power structures are the official, codified systems of authority within an organization. These include hierarchical positions, roles, and responsibilities defined by the organizational chart and policies.


  • Defined Hierarchies: Clearly defined roles and responsibilities, such as managers, directors, and executives.
  • Official Authority: Power is granted through official titles and positions.
  • Policies and Procedures: Decision-making follows established rules and procedures.
  • Accountability: Formal structures often come with clear accountability and reporting lines.


  • A CEO making strategic decisions for a company.
  • A school principal deciding on educational policies.
  • A government official enacting laws and regulations.

Informal Power Structures

Informal power structures are the unwritten, unofficial systems of influence within an organization. These arise from personal relationships, social networks, and cultural norms.


  • Influence: Power comes from relationships, expertise, charisma, or social standing rather than official positions.
  • Flexibility: Informal power structures are more fluid and adaptable.
  • Social Networks: Influence is often exerted through social interactions and networks.
  • Culture: Organizational culture and norms play a significant role in shaping informal power.


  • A long-time employee who influences decisions through their extensive knowledge and relationships.
  • A charismatic individual whose opinion is highly valued by peers.
  • Informal groups or cliques that shape workplace dynamics and decision-making.

The Relationship Between Formal and Informal Power Structures

Complementary Roles:

  • Balancing Influence: Formal and informal power structures can complement each other. Formal structures provide clear guidelines and accountability, while informal structures offer flexibility and adaptability.
  • Enhanced Decision-Making: Informal networks can provide valuable insights and alternative perspectives that formal decision-makers might overlook.

Potential Conflicts:

  • Power Struggles: Conflicts can arise when informal leaders challenge formal authority or when formal leaders ignore the influence of informal networks.
  • Miscommunication: Decisions made through informal channels might not be communicated effectively through formal structures, leading to misunderstandings.

Integration Strategies:

  • Inclusive Leadership: Leaders can acknowledge and integrate informal power structures by involving influential informal leaders in the decision-making process.
  • Open Communication: Encouraging open communication between formal and informal leaders can bridge gaps and foster mutual understanding.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Recognizing and respecting the cultural norms that underpin informal power can enhance cooperation and cohesiveness.


Corporate Setting:

  • Scenario: In a corporation, a mid-level manager (formal power) needs to implement a new policy. They notice resistance from employees who follow a long-time team leader (informal power).
  • Strategy: The manager collaborates with the team leader to understand concerns and communicate the benefits of the policy, leveraging the informal leader's influence to gain buy-in from the team.

Community Organization:

  • Scenario: A community health organization led by a board of directors (formal power) wants to introduce a new health initiative. Local community members (informal power) are skeptical.
  • Strategy: The board involves respected community members in planning and promoting the initiative, ensuring that their input is considered and valued.

Educational Institution:

  • Scenario: A school principal (formal power) decides to change the school's curriculum. Teachers and staff, led by an experienced teacher (informal power), have concerns.
  • Strategy: The principal forms a committee including the experienced teacher to discuss and refine the curriculum changes, ensuring that the teachers' perspectives are incorporated.

So, the relationship between formal and informal power structures in decision-making processes is complex and dynamic. Understanding and leveraging both types of power can enhance decision-making effectiveness, foster collaboration, and ensure more inclusive and accepted outcomes. By recognizing the value of informal networks and integrating them with formal structures, organizations can navigate challenges and harness diverse perspectives for better decision-making.

On the Exam

Questions on this topic on the ASWB exam may look something like this:

  • A social worker is trying to implement a new program within a healthcare organization where the formal leadership is not trusted by the staff. How can the social worker use the informal power structures to ensure the program's success?
  • In a child welfare agency, formal policies are often undermined by informal practices that have developed over time. What approach should the social worker take to align informal practices with formal policies?
  • During a community development project, a social worker observes that informal leaders within the community have significant influence over the residents, despite not holding any formal titles. How can the social worker leverage this influence to facilitate project success?

Now you're that much more ready to tackle exam questions on this easily-missed topic. Make sure you're covered on topics throughout the ASWB exam content outline by preparing with Social Work Test Prep's full-length practice tests.

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July 10, 2024
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