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The Silence of Power

  • Bennet van Well
  • Zeljko Branovic
  • Friday, 28. April 2023
the silence of power

People don’t talk about power – yet it is one of the most important bonding agents in organizations. We show why power is the only way, submission the exception and morality the better strategy.

Few things are as fascinating and at the same time as controversial as power in organizations. Power signals opportunities to shape things. Power is associated with hope for improvement. People call for power when they complain about miserable conditions. At the same time, talk about power always carries with it the latent accusation of abuse. People talk about it behind closed doors. If you ask managers about their power, they sometimes tense up and suggest that it would be better to talk about “influence”. Lower ranks, on the other hand, talk about power either pejoratively or sometimes even with fear. Hence, power seems to be something extraordinary or even problematic.

Organizational structures are power structures 

This is surprising, since everyone has power: whoever acts stabilizes or changes the state of the world – whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally, or unnoticed. There is always the chance to act otherwise then intended by (organizational) structures, expected, or hoped for by others at a given moment. Everyone can therefore make a difference. Only a few, however, are allowed major deviations from the usual – even more so if they repeatedly deviate. Most must reckon with sanctions aimed at maintaining or restoring the status quo, because organizational structures are always power structures at the same time. Those who want to act against the structures must therefore in turn mobilize power. 

Power shows itself as the probability that an actor within a social relation will be in a position to carry out their will despite resistance. However, it is the open conflict, the declared deviation or the forced submission that is seen as problematic in organizations, not power per se. The rule in organizations is silent cooperation or quiet submission to circumstances, not resistance. The silence of power supports the fiction of the organization as a clearly rational, purposeful machine in which everything interlocks. 

Under this fiction, every disagreement about an innovation, every conflict about resources, every dispute during strategic decisions can be blamed on a specific person, if necessary. If someone tries to push something through in an open conflict, it is quickly attributed to their character, their drive for recognition or other personal idiosyncrasies. However, the main conflicts are rooted in the organizational structures, not in the characteristics of the staff and managers – because organizational structures are power structures. The division of labor causes inherent tensions between different interests and opinions. Rationality fictions, however, make these tensions and contradictions taboo and ensure that the open power struggle and open rebellion rarely take place. When they do, the conflict is blamed on a specific actor. 

Power mobilizes organizations

Whether one strives for the noble or the reprehensible, anyone who wants to change structures and/or give the organization new orientation can only do so with power. This is evident, for example, in innovations: new products, services or forms of cooperation often emerge because things are done differently than intended. For these innovations to last, they must be anchored organizationally. But an innovation without power slips, even if it brings an advantage. 

Innovations mean effort, change routines, cost resources, and require budgets. This means that innovators come up against the interests and opinions of others. Anyone who wants to push through an innovation should therefore tie in with interests and mobilize resources so that the good ideas get through in the micropolitical quagmire. Hierarchical authority is certainly only one source of power that can be used to promote innovation. Others are, for example, expert knowledge, control over resources or the possibility to direct communication as middle manager. Anyone who wants to advance something must be able to use these or other sources of power. 

The powerful need the subordinate

The division of labor not only creates different interests and opinions, but also dependencies. These dependencies give rise to zones of uncertainty. Power arises from the control of relevant zones of uncertainty: those who can solve a problem for others, but keep open whether they will do so, control a zone of uncertainty for them – and thus become powerful actors. In exchange for control of the zone of uncertainty, actors act differently than they would have done spontaneously. But in the exchange lies the opportunity for the supposedly powerless. Even the most powerful organizational leaders are dependent on their subordinates acting in their interests. 

A game arises from this interdependence. No matter how asymmetrically power is distributed, if you want to make others do something, you should keep your performance uncertain or ensure that it will be needed in the future. Sure, a boss can force employees to follow an order. And yet changes fail again and again because of the silent resistance of the employees. Thus, there is also emancipatory potential in the awareness of power. It is worthwhile for both sides to be aware of this. It teaches the powerful prudence, and it can encourage the less powerful.

Those who rely solely on barter are wasting potential 

If, instead of subjugation and conflict, powerful actors wisely opt for the exchange of opportunities for action, they still give away potential if they use their power solely in their own interest or solely in the interest of their field. As much as interests and opinions shape action, actors in organizations are more than just utility maximisers. They (also) put their interests aside because they have a sense for the concerns of others and for the common good. Then they respond to the demands of others and take into account what others consider necessary. So, they (also) act morally. However, they act morally in the hope that others will also do so.

Whoever, under these conditions, relies solely on the barter in the power game can only expect the calculated consideration from others. Then everyone only does what they could also be forced to. Nevertheless, it is part of the essence of morality that it can only pay off if the consideration remains open, i.e., if it is a gift. This means that whoever stands up for the interests of others in organizations without need, whoever shows consideration for the goals of other departments in a change project, whoever takes into account what negative consequences the postponement of an investment would have, is acting morally and powerfully at the same time. 

They can hope, but not demand, that others do likewise. If they do, it strengthens the organization as a whole because they go beyond what is contractually agreed out of moral obligation, not because they have to. Morality as a resource, however, is a paradoxical potential. Instrumentalizing it spoils it, because actors have a sense of ulterior motives. To deny morality would amount to disregarding others, who would only be trusted with self-interest. And not to exploit the potential would be – a waste.

Bennet van Well

Dr. Bennet van Well

is a partner at Metaplan and advises management teams on strategy and organizational processes.

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Zeljko Branovic

Dr. Zeljko Branovic

is a Senior Consultant at Metaplan and collaborates with clients on innovation and digitalization projects.

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