7 Chapter 7: 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.



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Organizational Communication 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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