Sidestepping Power Trips

The Situation:

Walter was delighted to get the okay to line up speakers for the Change Leadership series. His experience as a HR manager at the company had taught him that first line managers across the company were feeling poorly prepared for the changes ahead. Although most had survived a series of restructurings across the years at the company, they had not encountered anything as far-reaching as this one. He expected enthusiastic participation in the series that brought in six local speakers to share their expertise.

After an exceptionally poor showing at the first session—only 1/3 of the managers and no one else—Walter asked a couple of his confidantes in the departments to discover what was happening. He learned that a group of long-time employees had been talking against the program. Attending would be identified as being a aligned with management against fellow employees. This old guard saw the restructuring as a threat and was actively committed to discouraging activities that would increase its success.

What’s Happening?

Power structures within organizations can work contrary to their primary mission. Actions that further the goals of the larger organization can create problems for individuals or subgroups. Informal leaders who are mis-aligned with the organization’s core mission have few opportunities to initiate; they generally react to discourage others from participating in activities that further the organizational mission. They may not actually have trouble with the content of the management initiative: improved leadership is a goal that anyone could appreciate. The objective instead is to maintain an upper hand in the power dynamics between employees and management. These dynamics have a more formal quality in unionized worksettings, but are potentially active in any workplace.

Immediate Action

Finding a shared, higher-order goal provides a key to resolving power conflicts. The presence of the power dynamic at all clearly indicates that something important is on the line. Direct confrontation increases the rigidity of positions, such that the only available route goes through one side overwhelming the other. Finding common ground can be a time consuming process, but results in the best way to defuse power conflicts.

What CREW Has to Offer

CREW opens opportunities for talking about the power dynamics of working relationships. For the most part, the power dynamics among coworkers go unspoken. When spoken, comments often come across as criticisms (e. g., you’re on a power trip). A context for civil conversations about power issues can give real value to an organization.

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