Understanding and Navigating Power Dynamics in the Workplace

Updated Dec 21, 20223 min
Understanding and Navigating Power Dynamics in the Workplace

Understanding and Navigating Power Dynamics in the Workplace

Caroline BantonUpdated Dec 21, 20223 min
Understanding and Navigating Power Dynamics in the Workplace

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, power is the "capacity to make others act or believe in a certain way." In other words, a powerful person has a great responsibility because they impact others’ behavior. Power can be established in different ways, it can be earned through hard work and democratically bestowed, or it can be obtained through persuasion, delegation, coercion, or brute force. Power can be used for constructive purposes, or it can be corrupted and abused.

This article will explain the different types of power and give common workplace examples. It will show how to navigate power, and importantly, how to empower yourself by effectively managing your boss. It will explain how to deal with bullying, a common workplace power dynamic, and what to do if the power wielded by others, or you, affects your mental health.

What Are Some Common Workplace Power Dynamics?

There are more power dynamics in the work environment than you might think. The most obvious is the formal power dynamic between the manager and a direct report, but others are not necessarily top-down hierarchical relationships, but they are effective nonetheless.

There are different types of power, but all of them boil down to one thing —having influence over others. Let's look at the different definitions of power and illustrate them with workplace examples.

1. Economic Power

People who control and govern economic resources, like incomes, have economic power over others. CEOs and business owners use their economic power to control employees’ actions with incentives like salary increases, benefits, and bonuses.

However, employees can exert economic power over their employers too. If employees join or form a labor union, they can use their power in numbers to take collective action and persuade their employer to take action in their interests. For example, a group of people can form an employee union and threaten to strike if they are not granted higher wages.

2. Cultural Power

Company culture influences how individuals behave within an organization. The culture can create unhealthy or healthy power dynamics. For example, suppose the leadership style is one that invites feedback from employees and acts upon that feedback. In that case, individuals within that organization will be more likely to speak up, engage, and bring problems to light. If an organization has an autocratic leadership that dictates and does not invite or listen to input, employees will disengage and feel demoralized.

3. Positional Power

Positional power is awarded to a person purely due to their rank or title. For example, the CEO holds a high power position. Whether that person rose to the rank of CEO due to legitimate means is irrelevant when it comes to the positional power they wield. 

4. Political Power

Political power is complex and occurs when individuals compete for their own interests. Office politics can occur at any level and between team members. For example, a power-hungry team member might want to be the leader of a project, and they might rally the support of other team members so that they are the most popular contender. They might influence others by buying certain people lunch or befriending them.

5. Legitimate Power

Ethically speaking, with power comes responsibility because power controls the way people behave. Sadly, many people use their power irresponsibly, often because they do not have legitimate power. Those with legitimate power have earned it through honest means, know-how, proven competencies, and transparent leadership; it is not coercive power.

For example, a manager with legitimate power has earned the respect and support of their team by proving they can be trusted to guide them in the right direction. They have referent power.

A manager who does not have legitimate power could be, for example, someone who has been given a leadership role simply because they are a member of the owners’ family. They might have no relevant credentials, are not good leaders, and thus do not have the support and trust of their reports. This person might end up resorting to short-term bullying tactics because they have no real credentials or long-term security.

How Do You Deal with a Bully?

A workplace bully uses their power to inflict emotional pain on other employees. Forms of bullying are nonverbal and verbal abuse, humiliation, or psychological and physical abuse. Anyone at any level can be a workplace bully, and it’s also possible that someone is a bully but they don’t realize it. Here are some ways to address bullying behavior.

  • If the bully is a co-worker, meet with them one-on-one. Bring up their behavior with specific examples and ask them to change their approach. Keep a record of their behavior. For severe scenarios, consider going straight to HR.

  • If the bully is a manager, keep a record of the days and times the bullying occurred and report this information to HR. Keep copies of any aggressive or insulting comments made via email or texts or otherwise and submit them to HR. Keep a written record of any verbal or physical incidents as soon as they occur. Don't attempt to address the behavior directly with your boss. This situation is not one that you can or should have to control.

  • Stay away. Limit your interactions while HR investigates. You might ask HR to temporarily move you to a different department or allow you to work from home.

  • Unfortunately, if the bully is your manager, HR may not intervene. It is likely that they already know about this person’s behavior and have done nothing to stop it. If you suspect this to be the case, your best option is to leave and find another job where the environment is healthier and your career can develop.

  • A mentor or career counselor can help you to see things more clearly. If you feel overwhelmed by a certain power dynamic, seek guidance before your mental and physical health suffers.

For more on how to manage toxic coworkers, read "How to Handle Mean CoWorkers"

How Do You Protect Your Mental Health Around a Bully?

It’s very difficult to cope with a bully because doing so demands controlling your emotions in the face of extreme provocation. Your best hope is to extricate yourself from the situation as soon as possible by following the above tips. In addition:

  • Remind yourself that bullies use gaslighting tactics, so don’t take what they say to heart.

  • Keep away from the bully as much as possible and find ways to relax.

  • Talk to others, such as a mentor or career coach, to help you through the difficult times until you resolve the situation. Focus on your positive work relationships instead.

Empower Yourself by Effectively Managing Your Boss

One of the best ways to empower your work life is to nurture a strong relationship with your boss. If you do, you will gain a mutually supportive relationship and one that is more likely to lead to a promotion. So, how do you effectively manage your boss? Here are some tips.

  1. Your relationship with your boss will focus on your one-on-one meetings. Prepare well in advance for these meetings.

  2. Learn your boss’s preferred communication style. Do they prefer that you contact them via Slack, email, or text? Do they prefer to be contacted at certain times of the day and never at dinner time? Respect your manager’s time.

  3. Give your boss a heads up before a meeting of the important topics so that he is already in the loop. Send them a quick email, text, or instant message, nothing long. 

  4. Choose just one or two issues to discuss with your boss. Any more, and you will seem like you are a complainer or not taking care of business.

  5. Always provide solutions to issues that you discuss with your boss. Give two or three solution options, and your boss will likely choose one of them. By doing this, you are not only informing your boss of challenges, but you are also solving them. That makes you a highly valuable employee.

  6. Learn your boss’s political and social circles. If you understand who and what is on your manager’s radar, you are more likely to be of use to them. It might also save you some embarrassment. For example, a negative comment on a project could backfire if your manager is involved and you were unaware.

For more on the employee-boss relationship, read "I Hate My Boss—What Should I Do?"

Final Thoughts

By being aware of the power dynamics around you, it is easier to gauge the culture of your organization and your place within that culture. A mentor or career coach can help you decipher the power dynamics in your organization. Some power plays will be toxic, such as bullying behavior, but others are necessary for constructive change. 

Pay close attention to how leaders use power because that will be the model that others will follow. You can't avoid power dynamics in the workplace, but you can use them to your advantage by forging strong relationships in some areas and treading carefully in others. 

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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