I attended Mark Cole’s workshop a few weeks ago, and there was discussion about power in organisations. An insightful question was posed: are OD consultants and practitioners being used to maintain power in the organisation? This is an interesting question and worthy of exploration.
There was talks on Taylorism and old school management, where power was very overt. It made me think………. was Taylorism a bad thing? The intentions behind it were the scientific management of productivity, from a humanistic perspective this probably creates tension between people and process. Due to the simple structures, conformity, lack of jobs, power was probably overt and used at will without question.
Has power been driven underground due to the evolution of the workplace? Are work places more political now than in they were in before, AND are we turning a corner on this?
In my view power is being driven underground, on the plus side the optics and social pressure of wielding power is going down like a lead balloon. Mark gave a lovely example that instead of a telling off, these days you would get a poor performance rating or miss out on a development opportunity etc.
Power in the classic sense (control/authority) is used subversively across organisations and it impacts us.
- Do we feel like we have to toe the line with our thinking, before we are ejected from the system?
- Do we need that piece of consultancy work from the client, so you do a job which may not be right for you and/or the organisation?
- How congruent do you feel in your role, how much creative freedom do you have?
- What power and permissions are given explicitly or implicitly by the organisation about how we work and engage in the work?
As much as we love a democracy, we need to acknowledge current reality, power exists and we cannot remove it from an organisation. We can surface it, the moment we name it is the moment it we can begin to deal with it internally in our own process and externally with our client. It can cut the psychological game and this is important.
I feel power in organisations needs a broader view and as practitioners it could help if we appreciated different sources of power. Knowing the alternative sources of power, can enable us to surface issues with clients, challenge their assumptions, notions and behaviours on power.
We also might find it useful to understand how organisations feel about their relationship with time, people, money and work:
This is the work of Rosa Krausz (1993) on organisational script. Although these ideologies cannot be defined as power, people give them power and the beliefs we have on abstract concepts can form powerful narratives in organisational culture. The same way Yuval Harrari said that money has power and value because we believe it does.
Rosa’s ideologies provide an interesting insight into relationships and concepts we may not always think of, but now makes total sense having looked at it. I do not speak of organisations in their totality, in every system there is something that works which is why it exists in the first place, though we may not like how it runs or what it produces. These ideologies will look different across the organisation or potentially the same, it is not a one size fits all and context important.
How do people use time in one department versus another? How do senior leaders use time in a powerful way, are they respectful and turn up on time at meetings? How do employees subversively use time as power, maybe shopping online instead of meeting an important deadline?
Krausz went on to write about power in leadership and described two other places where power exists:
- Organisational – Derived from the structure, process and positions assigned.
- Personal – characteristics, knowledge and competence.
In my earlier article I wrote mainly about organisational power through culture, however we do not always remember our own power and ability to influence, make good decisions and challenge the status quo. The person in the example in ‘organisational culture is a scapegoat’ used their personal power to challenge the culture and the leadership.
We think of power in the classical sense of authority or control, but there is so much more about power in organisations that perhaps organisations don’t see or fit in with what they do. If we look at power then I see two types being used extensively in organisations, they are Control and Knowledge. Here I want to use Steiner’s 7 sources of power (an alternative to authority).
Control – Manipulating people and the environment. This can include both the physical and psychological aspects.
Knowledge – This is broken down into 4 areas; scientific, wisdom (taking into considering past experience), intuition (understanding the laws of nature, and self as instrument) and vision (see what lies ahead). In organisations we value the scientific knowledge and often not pay attention to the others.
You said Steiner has 7 sources of power…. where are the rest of them? Yes, he does have 5 more and here they are and not what you would classically call power but perhaps this is part of the problem:
Grounded – to stand our ground and to occupy a space. To feel like you are rooted to place (in a nice way!).
Passion – To be excited and energetic, to ignite change and the power to create/recreate something new. Yes, it can also mean sex.
Communication – The power to move someone with language, share knowledge, influence and problem solve.
Love – Not many folks would talk about love in the workplace, but love is what binds us together, gives us the ability to nurture and offer hope.
Transcendence – to be at one, to see the connections across the systems we operate in. Our ability to rise above a situation regardless of material conditions.
It’s a worthwhile exercise to look at which of these an organisation might value, such as a large pharmaceutical will of course value the power of scientific knowledge, whilst a care home will most likely value the power of love.
These concepts work outside of the work place and can be a useful opportunity for reflection:
- Which power are you more drawn to?
- Which one do you rely on the most?
- Which do you over use and which one is under developed?
There are many layers and dimensions to power, we have our own power as individuals and many to choose from. We are not limited in our choices; we are only limited by our imagination.
Krausz, R.R., 1986. Power and leadership in organizations. Transactional Analysis Journal, 16(2), pp.85-94.
Krausz, R.R., 1993. Organizational scripts. Transactional Analysis Journal, 23(2), pp.77-86.
Steiner, C.M., 1987. The seven sources of power: An alternative to authority. Transactional analysis journal, 17(3), pp.102-104.
Nims is an Organisational Design and Development consultant at the MOD, she also freelances and supports SMEs. She is an executive coach and a trainee transactional analyst in the field of organisations.
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