Power Dynamics in the Workplace: An Intro

As an employer, understanding how power dynamics function and how to harness that power for higher productivity and positive interactions in your company is vital. There are many ways power dynamics function in a business. Learn what power dynamics are, review examples of power dynamics, understand why power dynamics are important and consider tips for maintaining healthy power dynamics in your company. 

Related: Inspiring Leadership: What Every Manager Should Know

 

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What are power dynamics?

Power dynamics are the balance — or lack of balance — between two or more people. Power dictates the structure of all personal and professional relationships. In the workplace, there are often clear power dynamics. For example, supervisors have more power than their subordinates, while the company’s CEO has more power than any other employee. Conflicts can arise when there’s a power struggle, when an employee may not know how to appropriately wield their power or when an employee feels demoralized by their lack of power.

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Examples of power dynamics

Psychologists Bertram Raven and John French identified seven types of power that impact power dynamics in the workplace. 

  • Coercive power: Those who have this type of power can use the threat of punishment to keep others from performing certain actions. An example would be a manager who can give a poor performance review to a team member. 
  • Expert power: Someone with expert power has an extraordinary skill or talent that makes them highly desirable. An example of this type of power could be a bilingual employee in a company that regularly serves customers who don’t speak English. 
  • Reward power: A person with reward power can provide a prize when they see a desired behavior. A manager has reward power when they provide an incentive or praise to an employee. 
  • Informational power: Those with informational power have specific knowledge that awards them status. An employee who has a niche education that helps the company would have informational power. 
  • Formal power: A person with formal power has legitimate control of others. In the workplace, the CEO or company owner has formal power. 
  • Referent power: Someone with referent power is well-liked by others and has sway over the actions of their peers. An example might be a popular employee who can motivate their peers to meet goals. 
  • Connection power: Those with connection power can help people meet their goals through their access to resources. For example, a job recruiter has connection power. 

Each of these types of power impacts how the person with the power interacts with others professionally. Acknowledging the type of power can help manage and balance power dynamics. 

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Why understanding power dynamics is important

Power dynamics can impact employee morale and productivity. It’s necessary for employers to understand how power dynamics function and how to balance them for a peaceful and comfortable work environment. Consider these specific ways in which power dynamics can affect your business. 

 

Company culture

Company leaders often set a company’s culture through their own actions. Company leaders can use their power to model appropriate relationships, work ethic and balance to their employees. 

 

Communication

Generally, employees are most comfortable speaking with their colleagues, or those who have the same amount of organizational power they do. Power dynamics can both negatively and positively impact communication in the workplace. 

 

Collaboration

When employees understand the power dynamics within a group, they’re more likely to address any conflicts or uncertainties immediately before power struggles result in lost productivity. 

 

Equity

Power dynamics can impact who feels comfortable contributing in a group setting and who doesn’t. When you’re aware of the power dynamics, you can establish practices for ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute. 

Power dynamics can impact, for good or for bad, every interaction that takes place between your employees. With a little understanding and observation, you can make power dynamics work for you and improve your company’s culture, communication, collaboration and equity. 

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Advice for achieving healthy power dynamics in your business

Power dynamics can help keep organizations running smoothly. Knowing how to use power appropriately is an important skill that you, and your employees, should foster. Use these tips to help you establish healthy power dynamics in your workplace. 

  • Set clear boundaries: When embarking on a new project or organizing a new team, ensure that all team members understand exactly what their role is and who they should report to. Clarifying power from the start of a professional relationship can help all parties involved feel more comfortable with their roles and less concerned with battling for power. 
  • Focus on the goal: Make sure everyone in the company or on the team knows what they’re working toward together. Emphasizing and re-emphasizing a shared goal can help teams collaborate effectively rather than battle for power and authority. 
  • Know your team: Understand that everyone in your company or on your team may feel motivated in different ways. Learn about the individuals and find ways to reward and motivate them that inspire their creativity and productivity. 
  • Practice varied input: Make a regular practice of soliciting feedback from your team in different ways. While some employees with substantial power in the company might feel comfortable speaking up at an all-hands meeting, others with less power may not. Ensure you’re seeking input from everyone on the team by considering the power dynamics of each meeting. 
  • Address power dynamics: When in a meeting, address the power dynamics immediately. Set norms for how you’d like people to speak and respond to one another in the meeting, especially if you hope to hear from those with little company power.
  • Model behavior: Model the behavior you hope to see from your employees. For example, if you want employees to feel comfortable sharing concerns with their managers, then model publicly responding to a concern from someone in the company and addressing it. 

Power dynamics are an inevitability of any relationship, either personal or professional. Create and maintain healthy power dynamics in your workplace with awareness and modeling.

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