6 Chapter 6: Power and Resistance at Work ; The Postmodern Workplace: Teams, Emotions, and No-Collar Work

Chapter 6: Power and Resistance at Work

When most people think of power, it’s generally accompanied by dark images like Darth Vader. It’s funny because power can be a good thing, too, like the power we have in a democracy. Generally, it’s not power, but what people do with the power they have, that gives power a bad rap.

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In most cases, I like to believe people misuse their power because they have it and aren’t even aware of it. As a manager or leader of an organization of any kind, you have positional power and you have a choice whether you increase or squander that power based on how effectively you lead your team.

Here is a list of the sources of power that may be found in organizations with further commentary

Formal authority

The simplest form of power is that vested in the position of ‘manager’. A manager has subordinates who must do his or her bidding, only within legal and organizational rules. The basic employment transaction  is ‘we give you money, you do as your are told’.

Of course there are many more ways that power can be exerted, and in particular in motivating people more effectively such as is found in transformational leadership.

Control of scarce resources

Other than directing employees, managers control budgets and the assets and other resources that the firm holds, from technology to people. A part of this control is the ability to allocate these resources to projects and other work.

It is not unsurprising that many of the political battles in organizations is over control of resources and ’empire-building’ is a classic game, with a significant risk that organizational goals get forgotten in the cut and thrust of winning and losing control of resources.

Use of organizational structure, rules and regulations

Organizations have hierarchies, departments, teams and other structures, often each with its own rules as well as the rules that govern the action within the organization as a whole. Many people do not know all of these rules, which makes them a source of power for those who care to take time to learn their detail.

Power can also be gained from quoting rules that do not exist or misquoting rules by overstating or understating their meaning.

Control of decision processes

Work is selected and resources are allocated by decisions, many of which are decided in some form by groups of people. By managing how decisions are made, for example by requiring consensus or senior-manager signoff, the power of some people may be curtailed whilst others gain the ability to shape decisions.

When decisions are made in committee or other meetings, the person who chairs the meeting or keeps the minutes may have notable power to control decisions.

Control of knowledge and information

Knowledge is power, as they say, and how you gather and distribute it is a source of power, whether it is technical or social information.

Experts often work in this way, protecting their elevated status by hiding the sources of their knowledge and exacting high prices (whether financial or social) for their learned opinions.

Control of boundaries

The structures and groups of the organization are only so because they have boundaries which people cross in order to access resources and meet people. Thus, for example, an executive’s Personal Assistant may have disproportionate power in the ability to allow access or not to the executive. Likewise security guards, though not paid very much can allow, bar or hassle people crossing their boundaries.

Ability to cope with uncertainty

A quite different source of power is personal resilience, the ability to handle uncertainty and stress that might debilitate others. Such people can gain position by taking on work that others fear and is a common route for upwardly-mobile go-getters who seek early promotion.

Control of technology

Technology is (or should be) an enabler, providing data, analysis, information, access and other benefits. Those who control what technology is used by the organization or who gets the latest computers and software has significant power, and the person who used to be the ‘IT Manager’ may now be the ‘Chief Information Officer’.

Having the latest technology can also be a status symbol, thereby giving the holder social power in the way they can show themselves to be influential and clever.

Interpersonal alliances, networks and control of ‘informal organization’

Who you know makes a lot of difference. We naturally help our friends and those who have helped us in some way in the past. Social networks are the glue of organizations and those who build and work their informal associates can thereby gain significantly more power.

In the time when smoking was allowed but only in special ‘smoking rooms’, it was often said that this became a ‘club’ where the low and the high in the organization rubbed shoulders, which no doubt gave power to the lower people in the name-dropping they could use and help they might get.

TED TALK: Forget about the Pecking Order at Work

By Margaret Heffernan

Control of counter-organizations

Not to every organization is there an equal and opposite counter-organization, but in the battlefield of businesses, whole ecologies spring up, include local opposition to factory expansion, trade unions seeking ever-increasing pay and benefits and so on. If you can infiltrate or otherwise hold some sway over the groups who might oppose you, you may at least be able to decrease the danger of their power and possibly neutralize them in some way.

Symbolism and the management of meaning

We live a lot, more than perhaps we realize, in the sway of the symbols and semiotics of the workplace. If you can recognize the subtlety and understand the workings of how meaning is created, then you have a surprisingly powerful tool for change and influence.

Symbols and meaning-making is a particular pattern of culture, and those who would change the underlying culture of an organization can make use of these.

Gender and the management of gender relations

In a balanced workplace, around half the people are men and half are women. In practice, some women gravitate towards particular roles whilst men seek other work positions. The ‘glass ceiling’ still exists in many companies and, perhaps due to life breaks such as having children, fewer women make it to the higher echelons.

This can lead to frustrations and energy that can be put to good and destructive use. If you can harness this, you have power. There is also the power of sexual attraction, and tall and shapely people continue to make good use of their physical assets.

Structural factors that define the stage of action

The ‘stage of action’ in organizations is set up by the organizational purpose, vision, mission, strategy and other high-level shaping activities that lead to scenarios of activity, from driving into new markets to struggling with organizational change.

If you can shape the direction of the organization, you have tremendous power to affect much of what it does and consequently the futures (and power) of others in the firm.

The power one already has

Last, but certainly not least, is the power of the individual. We can be charming, willing, obstinate and more. And we have feet we can use to leave the company at any time we choose.

So what?

So take note! If you are feeling powerless in an organization, think again and review the above list. Everyone has the ability to acquire and use more power than they might reasonably expect to have.

Here are some tips on how to ensure you use your power to build healthy, motivational, and productive relationships with people on your team.

  • Build healthy relationships. As a leader, your continued influence and power is not only about your ability to get the job done but also about the relationships you develop in the workplace. If you finish your work but everyone dislikes you, your negative behavior will eventually take you down; even though you completed your tasks on time and on budget.
  • Don’t play favorites. It’s natural and understandable that you will have favorite players on your team and people you naturally gravitate to as friends. Praise, when done privately and judiciously, can be an incredible motivator and affirmation of a person’s hard work. Praise done publicly can help align and motivate the team, but make sure to dole it out in a way that is even-handed. For example, if five team members pulled long hours to finish a project you need to recognize all five of them, even though two of them were slackers.
  • Remember that your words matter. Your words as a boss weigh heavily, especially with anything that can be construed as negative. Choose your words judiciously when giving feedback. For example, if you don’t like something you see you’d be better off commenting privately versus publicly or asking discrete questions. Instead of saying, “This slide is awful and needs to be cut,” you could offer, “I noticed you had this slide. What idea were you trying to convey?”
  • Hold yourself to higher standards. Be a good role model for your work team. If you want your team to be impeccable, ethical, and respectful of each other, then that good behavior has to start from the top. While it may be nice to massage your co-workers sore neck, think about how the recipient and others on the team will view your actions even if they are well-intentioned.
  • Have hard conversations. The power you have as a manager is for you to make decisions thoughtfully and, at times, to use compassion to deliver hard messages. While it may be more convenient to avoid difficult news, dragging out a hard conversation usually hurts all involved.


Pfeffer, J. (1992). Managing with power: Power and influence in organizations. Boston MA: Harvard Business School      Press.

Smith, Hedrick. (1988). The power game. New York: Ballantine Books.


Chapter 8: The Postmodern Workplace: Teams, Emotions, and No-Collar Work

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David Grady: How to save the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetings

Conflict Management in Groups and Teams

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Morton Deutsch, a noted social psychologist, determined that how people in a team, group, or organization believe their goals are related is important in understanding how effectively they work together. The cooperative conflict theory is a powerful way to understand conflict. When people believe their goals are compatible, they recognize that, as one succeeds, others succeed. There is increased cooperation because when one person is successful, others are helped in reaching their goals. This fosters a win-win environment, encouraging collaboration. Employees in cooperation share information, know each other’s points of view, exchange resources, and assist and support each other. In this climate of trust, cooperatives can manage their conflicts productively by freely speaking their minds, revealing frustrations, and talking out areas of anger or concern. However, those who view goals as competitive foster the suspicion that people only want to look out for their own interests, even at the expense of others. This mistrust halts the group’s ability to communicate by withholding information and resources, creating an unproductive environment. Members experience increased conflict and stress, as well as a decrease in morale and effectiveness. Because members of the group are caught up in a win-lose attitude, confrontations can be harsh.

When (not if) conflicts arise, it is important to work through them to mutual understanding. Conflicts may not always be resolved; however, they ought to be communicated to one another, and managed. Conflicts do no simply go away, but those involved should be made know as to which areas are in disagreement.

Being a team member provides employees with the opportunity to reach beyond the job being performed and become involved with achieving organizational goals. In addition, team involvement increases decision making, builds consensus, increases support for action, and provides a cooperative goal-oriented culture. Amason, et al (1995) explain, “Conflict can improve team effectiveness. The problem is that, once aroused, conflict is difficult to control. Sometimes it remains task focused, facilitating creativity, open communication, and team integration. In other instances, it loses its focus and undermines creativity, open communication, and integrated effort.”

Conflict is constructive when: Conflict is destructive when:
People grow and change positively from the conflict.
The conflict provides a win-win solution.
Involvement is increased for everyone affected by the conflict.
Team cohesiveness is increased.
The problem is not resolved.
It drains energy from more important issues.
It destroys the team spirit.
The team or individuals become divided.

While conflict is a natural, healthy part of any organization, it can, however, be painful when not managed productively. Thomas Capozzoli describes the nature of conflict as neither good nor bad.

“Conflict is not something that is a tangible product but lies in the minds of the people who are parties to it. However, it does become tangible when it manifests itself in arguing, brooding, or fighting. The problem lies with the inability for people to manage and resolve it effectively. If managed effectively, conflict can be constructive. If not, conflict can be a destructive force in people and organizations.”

People have different viewpoints and, under the right set of circumstances, those differences escalate to conflict. How you handle that conflict determines whether it works to the team’s advantage, or contributes to its demise.

You can choose to ignore it, complain about it, blame someone for it, or try to deal with it through hints and suggestions; or you can be direct, clarify what is going on, and attempt to reach a resolution through common techniques like negotiation or compromise. It’s clear that conflict has to be dealt with, but the question is how: it has to be dealt with constructively and with a plan, otherwise it’s too easy to get pulled into the argument and create an even larger mess.

Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Healthy and constructive conflict is a component of high-functioning teams. Conflict arises from differences between people; the same differences that often make diverse teams more effective than those made up of people with similar experience. When people with varying viewpoints, experiences, skills, and opinions are tasked with a project or challenge, the combined effort can far surpass what any group of similar individual could achieve. Team members must be open to these differences and not let them rise into full-blown disputes.

Understanding and appreciating the various viewpoints involved in conflict are key factors in its resolution. These are key skills for all team members to develop. The important thing is to maintain a healthy balance of constructive difference of opinion, and avoid negative conflict that’s destructive and disruptive.

Getting to, and maintaining, that balance requires well-developed team skills, particularly the ability to resolve conflict when it does happens, and the ability to keep it healthy and avoid conflict in the day-to-day course of team working. Let’s look at conflict resolution first, then at preventing it.

Jonathan Marks: In Praise of Conflict


Resolving Conflict

When a team oversteps the mark of healthy difference of opinion, resolving conflict requires respect and patience. The human experience of conflict involves our emotions, perceptions, and actions; we experience it on all three levels, and we need to address all three levels to resolve it. We must replace the negative experiences with positive ones.

The three-stage process below is a form of mediation process, which helps team members to do this:

Step 1: Prepare for Resolution

  • Acknowledge the conflict – The conflict has to be acknowledged before it can be managed and resolved. The tendency is for people to ignore the first signs of conflict, perhaps as it seems trivial, or is difficult to differentiate from the normal, healthy debate that teams can thrive on. If you are concerned about the conflict in your team, discuss it with other members. Once the team recognizes the issue, it can start the process of resolution.
  • Discuss the impact – As a team, discuss the impact the conflict is having on team dynamics and performance.
  • Agree to a cooperative process – Everyone involved must agree to cooperate in to resolve the conflict. This means putting the team first, and may involve setting aside your opinion or ideas for the time being. If someone wants to win more than he or she wants to resolve the conflict, you may find yourself at a stalemate.
  • Agree to communicate – The most important thing throughout the resolution process is for everyone to keep communications open. The people involved need to talk about the issue and discuss their strong feelings. Active listening is essential here, because to move on you need to really understand where the other person is coming from.

Step 2: Understand the Situation

Once the team is ready to resolve the conflict, the next stage is to understand the situation, and each team member’s point of view. Take time to make sure that each person’s position is heard and understood. Remember that strong emotions are at work here so you have to get through the emotion and reveal the true nature of the conflict. Do the following:

  • Clarify positions – Whatever the conflict or disagreement, it’s important to clarify people’s positions. Whether there are obvious factions within the team who support a particular option, approach or idea, or each team member holds their own unique view, each position needs to be clearly identified and articulated by those involved.

This step alone can go a long way to resolve the conflict, as it helps the team see the facts more objectively and with less emotion.

Sally and Tom believe the best way to market the new product is through a TV campaign. Mary and Beth are adamant that internet advertising is the way to go; whilst Josh supports a store-lead campaign.

  • List facts, assumptions and beliefs underlying each position – What does each group or person believe? What do they value? What information are they using as a basis for these beliefs? What decision-making criteria and processes have they employed?

Sally and Tom believe that TV advertising is best because it has worked very well in the past. They are motivated by the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Mary and Beth are very tuned-in to the latest in technology and believe that to stay ahead in the market, the company has to continue to try new things. They seek challenges and find change exhilarating and motivating. Josh believes a store-lead campaign is the most cost-effective. He’s cautious, and feels this is the best way to test the market at launch, before committing the marketing spend.

  • Analyze in smaller groups – Break the team into smaller groups, separating people who are in alliance. In these smaller groups, analyze and dissect each position, and the associated facts, assumptions and beliefs.

Which facts and assumptions are true? Which are the more important to the outcome? Is there additional, objective information that needs to be brought into the discussion to clarify points of uncertainly or contention? Is additional analysis or evaluation required?


Consider using formal evaluation and decision-making processes where appropriate. Techniques such as Quantitative Pros and Cons, Force Field Analysis, Paired Comparison Analysis, and Cost/Benefit Analysis are among those that could help.

If such techniques have not been used already, they may help make a much more objective decision or evaluation. Gain agreement within the team about which techniques to use, and how to go about the further analysis and evaluation.

By considering the facts, assumptions, beliefs and decision making that lead to other people’s positions, the group will gain a better understanding of those positions. Not only can this reveal new areas of agreement, it can also reveal new ideas and solutions that make the best of each position and perspective.

Take care to remain open, rather than criticize or judge the perceptions and assumptions of other people. Listen to all solutions and ideas presented by the various sides of the conflict. Everyone needs to feel heard and acknowledged if a workable solution is to be reached.

  • Convene back as a team – After the group dialogue, each side is likely to be much closer to reaching agreement. The process of uncovering facts and assumptions allows people to step away from their emotional attachments and see the issue more objectively. When you separate alliances, the fire of conflict can burn out quickly, and it is much easier to see the issue and facts laid bare.

Step 3: Reach Agreement

Now that all parties understand the others’ positions, the team must decide what decision or course of action to take. With the facts and assumptions considered, it’s easier to see the best of action and reach agreement.

In our example, the team agrees that TV advertising is the best approach. It has had undeniably great results in the past and there is no data to show that will change. The message of the advertising will promote the website and direct consumers there. This meets Mary and Beth’s concern about using the website for promotions: they assumed that TV advertising would disregard it.

If further analysis and evaluation is required, agree what needs to be done, by when and by whom, and so plan to reach agreement within a particular timescale. If appropriate, define which decision making and evaluation tools are to be employed.

If such additional work is required, the agreement at this stage is to the approach itself: Make sure the team is committed to work with the outcome of the proposed analysis and evaluation.


When conflict is resolved take time to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions everyone made toward reaching a solution. This can build team cohesion and confidence in their problem solving skills, and can help avert further conflict.

This three-step process can help solve team conflict efficiently and effectively. The basis of the approach is gaining understanding of the different perspectives and using that understanding to expand your own thoughts and beliefs about the issue.

Preventing Conflict

As well as being able to handle conflict when it arises, teams need to develop ways of preventing conflict from becoming damaging. Team members can learn skills and behavior to help this. Here are some of the key ones to work on:

  • Dealing with conflict immediately – avoid the temptation to ignore it.
  • Being open – if people have issues, they need to be expressed immediately and not allowed to fester.
  • Practicing clear communication – articulate thoughts and ideas clearly.
  • Practicing active listening – paraphrasing, clarifying, questioning.
  • Practicing identifying assumptions – asking yourself “why” on a regular basis.
  • Not letting conflict get personal – stick to facts and issues, not personalities.
  • Focusing on actionable solutions – don’t belabor what can’t be changed.
  • Encouraging different points of view – insist on honest dialogue and expressing feelings.
  • Not looking for blame – encourage ownership of the problem and solution.
  • Demonstrating respect – if the situation escalates, take a break and wait for emotions to subside.
  • Keeping team issues within the team – talking outside allows conflict to build and fester, without being dealt with directly.

GSC Library Article:

Sackton, F. (1993). How to plan and conduct effective meetings. Armed Forces Comptroller, 38(4), 28.


Key Points

Conflict can be constructive as long as it is managed and dealt with directly and quickly. By respecting differences between people, being able to resolve conflict when it does happen, and also working to prevent it, you will be able to maintain a healthy and creative team atmosphere. The key is to remain open to other people’s ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. When team members learn to see issues from the other side, it opens up new ways of thinking, which can lead to new and innovative solutions, and healthy team performance.

Groups and teams have a powerful influence on the success and failure of an organization. If the group perceives itself as being cohesive, it will be much more likely to succeed. The success of groups is influenced by group size and cohesiveness, status, values, and norms of members. The changing dynamics of today’s global workplace creates an environment in which a mix of age, gender, nationality, and other demographics present a challenge for both an organization’s employees and leadership.


Eisenhardt, K. M., and Zbarecki, M.J. (1992). Strategic decision making. Strategic Management             Journal 13: 20-22.

Katzenbach, J. R., and Smith, D.K. (1993). The discipline of teams. Harvard Business Review





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Organizational Communication COMM 3893 & MGT 3123 Copyright © 2017 by Julie Zink, Ph.D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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