• Ernesto L. Brea

Abuse of power in the work place.

With people vying for what can appear to be a very limited pool of prestige and tangible financial benefits, it is no wonder that the workplace is often fraught with difficulties. In addition, because our jobs are often a source of income as well as areas from which we draw pride and security, it is easy to feel threatened by any challenge to that sense of self and stability.

Power struggles in the workplace do not always originate from the top down. Very often, power struggles exist between colleagues. Recognising and understanding typical incidents of poor office politics can go a long way in handling a difficult situation.

What is power?

Power comes in many different forms and can be seen as having both legitimate and formal sources, as well as unofficial or informal bases. In 1959, two social psychologists, French and Raven, wrote a book entitled Studies in Social Power. In it, they provided a highly influential analysis of power that has become the reference point for understanding how power is obtained and utilised, particularly in the workplace. French and Raven identified how various forms of power can be acquired through official channels, such as governments and hierarchies, and through the status that comes with a title or a position. They observed also that power may be derived through individual skills or attributes, for example, experts are powerful because they have knowledge, while others are powerful due to charisma or personal attractiveness or connections.

Some years later, the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that every member of a society or group has power. In his ground breaking work, he wrote that “power is everywhere”. In this sense, power is viewed as a factor that influences everyone and in every situation.

Foucault saw power as something we encounter constantly and must always negotiate in ways large and small in our daily lives. Indeed, some professionals advise that it is important to remember that everyone has some form of power – even if it is only the power to resist.

Power struggles in the workplace can occur in different guises. Bad bosses can wield power in obvious ways, or it can be done in more subtle ways by playing favourites, withholding praise or rewards, delaying holidays and raises, or just by undermining a worker’s confidence and self-esteem. Gossip and exclusion are two of the most common ways that people use to exercise power in the workplace. There is also a tendency for power struggle negativity to seep across a workplace, with divided opinions and loyalties adding to the already tense situation.

Besides the toll that these struggles inflict on individuals, power in the workplace can actually undermine the goals and the success of the organisation. Therefore, it is a problem that has potentially serious outcomes at all levels.

How to Protect Oneself from the Negative Aspects of Power

Seek inside help. It is in the best interest of the organisation that conflicts are resolved before they become destructive. Managers should try to remain objective and to clarify rules and their expectations about workplace relationships and policies. This can become more complicated, however, if management is the source of the problem, so it may be useful to read books or articles or to consult outside professionals who offer constructive ways to respond to, and possibly change, an uncomfortable or non-productive environment.

Don’t take it personally. The workplace is a complex organism and people misbehave for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with you. As trite as it may sound, adopting a positive attitude may result in a less troubled atmosphere.

Give yourself some options. It may feel empowering to know that your resume is up-to-date and that you have skills and abilities you can take elsewhere if that turns out to be the best remedy. Even if you have no intention of leaving, writing down your goals and accomplishments may help you refocus your attention away from the source of the problem and to more appropriate strategies. The idea that it is possible to change the situation you’re in can be a step in the right direction.

Images on Creative Commons license courtesy of zappowbang, SleetDro

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