New Manager

The power play at work

TT Srinath | Updated on April 30, 2014

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Many top executives may exercise their power in a negative way but it can also manifest itself in meaningful ways

As a consultant and change agent, I have faltered in making a perceptible difference, sometimes in organisations that I have worked with: I have ‘ignored the woods for the trees’. I have either been inattentive to the subtle dynamics of power that operate in organisations, and/or been ignorant of them.

As a new trainee, fresh from a graduate programme in industrial relations, I was seconded to work with what was then called the Personnel Department in an organisation. Often at lunch-hour, people would gather at the table of the personnel manager and speak, most often sotto voce, about the goings-on within the organisation. They would speak about seniors, and I noticed the personnel manager would fill in the gaps.

While I was privy to this myself, I did not realise then that this was a classic case of demonstration of ‘newsy’ power, or the power of information that the personnel manager was displaying. He was employing his privileged position to reveal information that perhaps may have been confidential. An administrative manager, I once noticed, when consulting with an organisation, would often not send the company vehicle even when I was told that it would be sent to pick me up before a meeting with a manager. This happened several times and made me angry and upset. I, therefore, when the opportunity presented itself, complained about this to the CEO. The CEO heard me out and then asked me who I had been making my request to for the vehicle.

I told the CEO that I had been asking for the vehicle from the manager who had invited me for the meeting. I was then gently informed by the CEO that transport was handled by the administrative manager and I had to make my request to him. I realised that there was legal sanction for this by the CEO and the administrative manager was employing his legitimate status to exercise ‘legitimate or legal’ power.

Coercive power

When consulting for a large organisation, I once encountered a fairly distraught young man, who I knew to be competent yet always in a rush. I accosted him one day and asked him why he was constantly in a rush. He remarked that he was having trouble pleasing his boss. At a meeting a few days later, I met the young man’s boss and mentioned the young man and the agitated state I often saw him in.

The boss, without batting an eyelid, said to me “if he wants to work for me he better dance to my tune!” The boss was exercising ‘coercive power’. An owner-manager of a small scale manufacturing unit once invited me to sit in on a meeting he was chairing with his staff.

A fairly young yet vibrant salesman made his presentation about the previous month’s sales collection and apologised for delay in receipts. The owner seemed a quick-tempered man and, in an aggressive manner, told the salesman that he jolly well collect the dues or would not receive his salary the following month.

I realised later that this had been a display of ‘power to compensate’.

Referred power

While I have recounted some dysfunctions in the demonstration of power by people in organisations, there is also the possibility that power may manifest in more meaningful ways, such as ‘expert power’, when someone demonstrates superior knowledge because of his or her expertise. Yet again, if the expert power is employed in a way that it undermines another person, its efficacy is lost.

Similarly, ‘referred power’, which is employed in a healthy fashion, such as when someone is being referred to because he or she is better informed than another, if used with sensitivity, will have a salutary effect. Yet, if the person who is being referred to, for he is better equipped, damages the referee or undermines him or her, the expert is doing disservice to the position of power that he has been endowed with.

Finally, it behoves consultants and change agents to be aware and conscious of the subtle dynamics that operate in organisations, which, if not recognised and attended to, can cause more harm than good.

The writer is an organisational and behavioural consultant.

Published on April 29, 2014

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