The effects of power on individuals is different from the effects of power on teams. While power may make individuals feel empowered and lead them to pursue their goals, power within teams may actually make people more focused on their dependencies and vulnerabilities towards one another

         Power struggles within teams encompass a large variety of behaviours.

Let’s explore: Have you as a team member

proposed a new process to guide work on a specific task in order to gain prestige in the eyes of others or control over a more desirable role within your team?

afraid of losing power, in a task conflict, begun to heavily criticise a proposal, not because you don’t agree with this new way of working, but because you’re afraid that by accepting this proposal, the other member in the conflict may gain power, and you might lose power?

in order to gain more power, put or pulled others down or  brought yourself up, either overtly  – out in the open for everyone to see and experience – or more covertly – hidden, more secretly executed.?

struggled for power by engaging in a behind-the-scenes coalition formation, purposely withholding information, or gossiping about other team members?

with a quest for power, deceived, manipulated or undermined authority — for instance by explicitly refusing orders or more implicitly ignoring orders ?

tried to augment your power by dominating, coercing or sabotaging other team members?

attempted to improve your power position by bragging about your achievements, or taking credit for other members’ work?

withheld access to people, information or instrumentalities or made high-ranking members more dependent on the lower-ranked members?  For example, the secretary who is generally in charge of the allocation of office supplies and space may use this power to purposely disadvantage higher ranked colleagues.

feeling threatened and in order to protect or improve your own power,become suspicious, distrusting and worried that other team members are plotting against you?

silenced, oppressed or sidelined lower ranked members?

directed your power laterally, i.e., at members of the same power rank as yourself, by discrediting them?

Types of Power
Formal power is categorised as asymmetric organisational resource controls and informal power, or status as respect, prestige, admiration and esteem. The basis of these forms differ in that formal power reflects the actual control of tangible resources and is a property of an individual ,and informal power reflects the control one has been socially given by others and is a property of team members and their observations and perceptions. For example, a company may construct a task force which has the mandate to guide a change throughout the company. While the individual members in this team may come from all levels of the company, the power vested in this team to change the entire organisation can give the team, and thereby its members, far-reaching power in the company.

Social psychology has given us the understanding that forces larger than ourselves determine our mental life and our actions – that chief among these forces is the power of situations.

In teams, people with and without power directly interact with one another in the team task context, perceive each other’s power, and choose whether to accept or challenge each other’s power. Indeed, in such team task contexts, DeRue and Ashford (2010) suggest that members frequently make claims upon one another to legitimise and/or promote one’s own power and influence, and the others in the team have the choice to grant these claims or not. A growing line of research suggests that a large number of such claims are actually denied, and that power in teams is frequently challenged and renegotiated.

When such power-sensitised teams face external resource threats (such as uncertainty in the external environment or inter-team competition) or personal resource threats within the team (such as perceived illegitimacy or factionalisation into subgroups), teams may descend into performance-detracting power struggles.

Power Dispersion in Teams
Teams reach the highest power dispersion if power is concentrated within one person, whereas it reaches the lowest power dispersion if power is equally distributed among all team members For example, a team in which one member holds a substantially more influential job title than others would have high power dispersion, and a team in which all members hold similarly valued job titles would have lower power dispersion.

Teams where all members have high power, such as in management teams, are generally expected to have internal power struggles and conflicts, which harm team outcomes. These negative effects of team power have been theorised to occur because when members with high power interact, all members are motivated to retain and improve the power they hold (Bruins & Wilke, 1992; Mulder, 1977). As such, members are vigilant to threats to their individual positions. Additionally, given that high power members tend to be proactive and goal-oriented,high-power members are especially likely to lash out preemptively to protect and improve their positions.

We can sense when one person or a group is more powerful than another, yet we cannot measure power. It is as abstract as time, yet as real as a firing squad.  At times, power struggles are overt, and can be explicitly seen as such. At other times, power struggles may be expressed more indirectly and instead may be seen in how they drive other forms of conflict in teams, such as

  1. conflicts over the task (i.e., disagreements about the goals and outcomes of teamwork),
  2. relationships (i.e., personality or value clashes), and
  3. process (i.e., disagreements about team logistics, such as meeting time)

These types of conflicts are oftentimes seen as less threatening, and therefore are more accepted and more normative to express than power struggles which are mostly condemned.  Power struggles are notoriously difficult to clearly identify and resolve, as they are often indirectly expressed via other behaviours, such as pushing more aggressively during a task conflict or claiming a desirable role during a process discussion.

Conflicts can only ever help performance when the real issues are brought to the table and discussed. However, power tends to be a very sensitive topic, which people find difficult to openly talk about, and therefore power struggles are rarely openly discussed in teams, making their eventual resolution very problematic and their chance of escalating likely.  The implications of power struggles tend to be long term and intractable thereby harming effective teamwork.

When we operate in the “super-organism” that is the corporation, where specialised roles have led to almost unparalleled human cooperation, our decisions on right and wrong arise from powerful, instinctive, and often invisible moral matrices.

Perceptions of lack of alternatives increases the internal negotiation tension and causes mini-monopolies to emerge inside a firm. Not only do such monopolies have a higher temptation to use their power, because the counter party cannot walk away, they also have rules and regulations that diminish the incentives to find creative solutions.

Provide team feedback ahead of individual feedback. Power dispersion is positively related to learning and performance when teams receive team feedback, but negatively related to learning and performance when teams receive individual feedback. This is because team feedback promotes a collective improvement orientation within a team (i.e., how are we doing; what can we do to improve our performance?), which leads high power members to use their power advantage to help the team. Individual feedback on the other hand promotes an individual improvement orientation (i.e., how am I doing; what can I do to improve my performance?), leading high power members to use their power advantage solely for their own gain.

Ensure executives communicate in courageous, compelling ways to reach well beyond superficial transactions to form deep, trust-based relationships of mutuality, vulnerability, and clarity.

Empower others to point out moments when the team is leaning towards a regrettable path or saying and doing things that the team later wish they could take back.

Flatten internal team hierarchies. This will in turn mitigate social comparisons and associated threats to members’ power within the team , reducing the link between team power-level and performance-detracting power struggles;

Train for Courageous Conversations: in choosing to speak up or not, a less powerful person has to be acutely aware of their own drivers and behavioural triggers, sensitive to their standing in the formal and informal social hierarchy, and also to the specifics of their organisational culture. There is no one-size-fits-all approach people can adopt. But there is no doubt that organisations of all stripes, and in all sectors, would perform better if more voices were raised, and heard.

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