- sovereign power
- disciplinary power
- surface structure of power
- open face of power
- hidden face of power
- deep structure of power
- organizational politics
- open persuasion
- manipulative persuasion
- rhetorical messages
- strategic ambiguity
- indirect questions
- denotative hesitancy
- collective resistance
- testing limits
- discursive closure
- “practical” questions
- “technical” questions
In the first two units of this book we introduced a number of key concepts: organizations and their members are embedded in complex social, political, and economic systems. These systems were created through strategic actions, and in turn guide and constrain the actions of the organizations that exist within them. Similarly, employees must strategically draw upon the rules and resources that are available to them to achieve their goals and the goals of their organizations. But, people are not just workers – they have complex lives and interpersonal relationships, and must find ways to deal with the competing pressures that exist in each of the systems that surround them. Furthermore, they must develop strategies for dealing with all of these pressures, with all of their “identifications” as explained in Chapter 5. Because we are “knowledgeable” actors, we can meet this challenge, and in the process reproduce and sometimes change those systems. In the chapters that make up this unit, we return to those key concepts and apply them to a number of challenges that are faced by employees and organizations in the twenty-first century. In this chapter we examine organizational power relationships as a key dimension of institutionalized structures and assumptions, and view organizational politics as the strategic management of power. In Chapter 8 we offer a parallel analysis of organizational decision making and conflict management. Chapter 9 focuses on communication and organizational change. In the final three chapters, we return to societal context and examine three challenges that stem from organization-society relationships – diversity, globalization, and ethics.
The words power and politics are used by almost everyone to explain much of what happens in life and at work. Consumers decry their powerlessness in the face of big business. Students complain that they are victimized by arbitrary professors and administrators, and are powerless to do anything in response. Subordinates vow to change their organizations for the better as soon as they advance to positions of authority (but they rarely do). Power influences employees’ choices about which audiences to address (and which to avoid) and how to communicate to them. Political considerations tell people what actions must be taken in particular situations and what actions and emotions should be suppressed.
If subordinates see their supervisors as powerful members of their organizations, their job satisfaction tends to increase and their tendency to withhold or distort information decreases. Similarly, if subordinates perceive that their supervisors are actively involved in organizational politics, they may trust them less and be more likely to withhold information (Jablin, 1981). Employees base their choices about how to communicate partly on their assessment of organizational power and politics, and their choices about how to communicate create and reproduce power relationships.
A PERSPECTIVE ON ORGANIZATIONAL POWER
Many discussions of power and politics are based on a misconception about what power is and how it functions in societies and organizations. Traditional views of power focus on what Michel Foucault has called sovereign power,
the processes through which the people who occupy positions at the top of hierarchies dominate people who are located lower in them. Historically, this kind of “power” is connected to the phrase “abuse of” because having total power often leads to its misuse. However, there are a number of problems with this “power over” view. One is that it fails to recognize that power is dispersed throughout societies and organizations. It exists in every relationship and every interaction, not just those that cross levels of social and organizational hierarchies. As Chapter 3 explained, organizational control sometimes does involve direct surveillance by supervisors, sometimes using computer technologies, and systems of control through rules and rewards. It also may involve team surveillance/concertive control (Chapter 4) and self-surveillance/unobtrusive control (Chapter 5), processes that Foucault calls disciplinary power
. In modern organizations, disciplinary power is at least as important as sovereign power. Since disciplinary power is largely ignored in “power over” models, they seriously oversimplify power relationships.2
Second, traditional views of power forget that abuse stems from imbalances of power, not power itself. The accent in Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” should be on absolutism, not on power. When people have a great deal of power over others they begin to believe that low-power people are inferior and untrustworthy. Conversely, if people feel powerless, they tend to become depressed and helpless, feel higher levels of stress, develop physical symptoms such as headaches and hypertension, and impede valuable organizational change and innovation. Powerlessness creates feelings of vulnerability, and vulnerability leads to abuse. People need to feel that they have influence over their lives. One way to offset these effects is to help people understand the relationships between power and communication. All power relationships involve opportunities and strategies for resistance. Although knowledge is often used to dominate people, it also can lead to empowerment. Increasing the degree of balance in organizational power relationships reduces the potential for abuse.
Third, a “power over” view of power leads people to overlook the positive role that power plays in mobilizing people and resources to get things done. If members of an organization define power as “accomplishment” rather than “domination,” nonproductive and personally destructive power games are less likely. But because the “domination” view of power is a taken-for-granted assumption in Western societies, it is difficult for people to change their frame of reference. The shift can happen, but only through understanding how communication, power, and politics are interrelated.
The final problem with “sovereign” views is that they focus on only the overt, conscious level of power. We will call this level the surface structure
It has two dimensions. One involves an open face
that is composed of overt displays of power – threats, promises, negotiations, orders, coalitions, gag rules, and so on. The second dimension of the surface structure
of power is its hidden face
. This face works by regulating public and private issues. In organizational life, employees must often make difficult decisions about when and how to challenge power holders. Newcomers soon learn that some issues are not to be discussed in public; some potential solutions are not to be considered openly; and some arguments are not to be made. Open discussions are limited to safe topics (those that power holders are willing to have discussed in public), acceptable alternatives, and unofficially sanctioned premises for making decisions. As a result of these regulatory processes, consensus in open discussions is the rule, not the exception. When disagreements are voiced they tend to be over minor issues and serve the purpose of perpetuating the myth that open, rational, and objective decision making exists in the organization. If individuals violate these constraints, they may either be ignored or attacked by the rest of the group. If they persist they will be “educated” by an unofficial tutor. If they cannot be educated, they may be removed.
But, power also has a second level, a deep structure that operates below employees’ conscious awareness. Throughout this book, we have discussed the processes through which the taken-for-granted assumptions of a society guide and constrain employees’ actions. People act in ways that they have learned are normal and natural and usually do so without being aware of it. A society’s taken-for-granted assumptions tell people who they are, what their role is in society, and where they fit in the formal and informal hierarchies that constitute their society. It is through these nonconscious parameters of action that power normally is exercised. Usually employees never realize that these societal assumptions are part of organizational power relationsh...