Understanding the background to power in a group

To really understand any team, it is important to understand the distribution of power within the group and how that power is exercised.

Similarly, in order to understand the challenges of implementing change in a group, it is useful to understand what impact that change will have on the power within the group.

Some of this information falls out quite naturally when using the Arenas of Change approach to assessing the readiness for a group to adopt change.

But in my experience people often have only a limited understanding of the power in a group before attempting to implement change and then get surprised when members of the group start to “play politics” or undermine the desired changes.

Fortunately, there are approaches to help us better understand where power comes from in a group, how these sources of power might be threatened (or enhanced) by potential changes and therefore how the holders of power might react to a potential change (for example, Pfeffer J, 1981, ‘Sources of power in organizations’,Power of Organizations, Pitman, Boston).

I have stolen (and modified) a list of sources of power from one of the courses I did in my masters degree – Managing Agile Organisations.

Positional authority

This is the power someone has because of their role. For example a boss has power because you are told he is the boss.

If you hear a lot of people saying “This is the CFO’s most important project” or “James won’t like that” then the group may have centralised power based on their hierarchy. Sadly for senior managers though, positional authority is the one most people ignore when the boss is not looking and having to fall back on it can make a manager appear threatened rather than powerful.

However there are too closely related types of power that may not be as obvious:

  • Charismatic power, or the power of celebrity. Sometimes people appear in the room as the CFO and the team listen to them because of who they are. Having a senior role in the organisation, being famous or being a rainmaker might enhance the charisma of the team member; and
  • Traditional power. Sometimes the former leader of the group still wields power in the group. Similarly, a parent, the inventor of a product, or other people who have never formally held power might actually have vast influence within the group because of their traditional role.

Questions to ask when wanting to understand the positional power in a group are:

  • Who is in charge?
  • Who do people really listen to? Why? When?
  • Will this change impact the structure of the team?
  • Will this change impact the influence of the traditional leaders of the group?

Power through controlling access to resources

If I am the only one with access to critical resources, then I can obviously use this to my advantage. But those who hold or allocate critical resources often exercise power accidently, simply by getting involved in prioritising those resources.

Questions to ask with respect to access to resources are:

  • What is the scarcest resource in the team?  What skills are the hardest to come by? What are the biggest constraints the team faces?
  • Who normally resolves these issues?
  • What is the greatest unrealised opportunity in the team? Why has it not been realised? What would have to change to make the opportunity possible? Who could help make that happen?
  • Where are the bottlenecks in the team? Why? Who normally resolves them?
  • How does the team fund new initiatives? Who gets the funding?

An increasingly important resource these days is knowledge. So some additional questions might be:

  • What information does the team act on? Who provides or sources this information?
  • Who maintains the team’s knowledge? How?
  • How do people know what to do? Where do they get the information they need to do it?

Power through organisational rules and rituals

It may seem odd to think of the legal or brand team as being power-brokers.  But those who can interpret the rules the team needs to abide by can significantly alter the ability of the rest of the team to act by simply ruling that something is against a policy, by allowing exceptions or by interpreting where and how a particular rule needs to be followed.

Existing rules and policies are an obvious (potential) constraint to change. But so to is the way these rules are interpreted.

So, good questions to ask here are:

  • What rules or policies exist?
  • Who decides when they should apply? How might she be impacted by this change? What input should she have to this change?
  • How and when can the team seek exceptions?
  • What policies might be impacted by this change?
  • What policies exist simply because they are imbedded in the current system or process? Who would expect to be involved if we changed them?
  • What rules are really followed and what get dropped when pragmatism is needed? How is this decision made?

Control of questions, access and agendas

Business analysts often wield more power in a group by deciding which questions should be asked when looking at a new opportunity. For example a totally different outcome might result from the same change if the business analyst asks these different questions:

  • How should the team implement this; versus Should the team implement this?;
  • How can we get the vendor to provide this; versus Who can provide this?
  • How can we get this implemented by the end of the month; versus what should our long term goal be.

In a similar way, those who control the CEO’s diary, the agenda for the board meeting and similar agendas have the power to decide what decisions will actually be considered and in what order.

This is one area of power that is often forgotten when considering how a team will adopt a new approach. And yet the control of the agenda is often one of the most aggressively protected sources of power during times of change.

Some good questions to ask are:

  • What meetings do members of the team attend? Who determines the purpose and agenda of those meetings? Who organises and distributes the agenda?
  • Who takes the minutes?
  • Who books the meetings for the boss?  How do I get into her diary?

Along the same lines, there are often people in the team who are not responsible for making decisions but do manage the decision making process. For example a project office might run the project approval process or a finance team might run the budgeting process.

Relevant questions here include:

  • How are decisions made in the team?  Who makes those decisions?  Who facilitates the process?
  • Is there a good alignment between the official decision making processes in the team and the way decisions are really made?  Where is there friction? Between who?

The power to impact reliability

Another group who are often overlooked are the humble maintenance team and the call centre staff.  Even though management might announce a change, these people can simply make its implementation unreliable or inconsistent.

I was involved in one innovative product launch that just didn’t seem to be popular with customers. But then we stumbled on several customers who had tried to ask about the product, been forwarded to an obscure number and asked to leave a message.  Then nobody got back to them.  Naturally they gave up, but the call centre reporting showed that customers were simply not asking about the product because nobody was recording the calls, nor our failure to respond.

In another team there was a receptionist who had been around for a long time and was extremely effective. But she made processes like the courier process and the room booking process seem so easy that nobody really thought about it when she moved to another building during a change and was “replaced” by three other receptionists working together. It was only then that we started to realise just how much our under-appreciated old receptionist had been doing or how useful her existing relationships were.

Good questions here are:

  • Who interacts with customers? How do they know what to do?  How do they actually go about doing it?
  • What could go wrong in the team? What has gone wrong in the past? What is so reliable we never give it a thought? Who is involved in these?
  • Who would you say keeps things running under the covers?

Control of relationships

While vendors and customers might both sign contracts, it is usually the relationship that determines how well they work with a team. And those involved in those relationships have a lot of power to change our customers perceptions of a change, call in favours with vendors or grant/restrict access to our vendors and customers to change the way they interact with the team.

Typical questions here are:

  • Who are the team’s (internal or external) customers? Who interacts with those customers?  Who manages the relationship?
  • Who manages the relationship with other teams? With vendors? How are these relationships managed?

Factional power

Some teams have strong union membership, and while the union might not wield official power in the organisation they do have significant power to mobilise their members.

Other teams have different sub-groups or cliques that can exert a lot of influence within the team. Some relatively small groups might even hold the balance of power between more powerful groups.

If there are factions within the team then some possible questions are:

  • What factions exist within the team?
  • Are members of the team involved in a union or professional body?
  • How might that impact what we are planning to do?
  • Are there different functional groups in the organisation such as HR, Finance and IT? How do they work together? Will they be likely to have or want a say in what we are looking at doing?

Would you really ask all these questions?

Many changes have the potential to impact the sources of power I have listed above. And taking away people’s ability to control their environment can cause concern and possibly significant but avoidable issues.

In fact even a perceived attempt to change the control people feel they have over their environment can cause significant issues at times. And even giving people more control might lead to concerns.

So when considering any serious change, I think it is worth reviewing how the change might impact the sources, distribution and exercise of power in the team.

But of course not every change justifies all of this analysis. And even when the change does justify the analysis it can be hard to decide what information to act on and what to put aside.

So next time I will discuss an approach to determining the real obstacles, enablers and constraints to change.

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One thought on “Understanding the background to power in a group

  1. Pingback: Power within a Team | lanceek

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