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The Application of Power in Organisations

After a career in the finance industry, Andrew Harris returned to University and studied workplace conflict.

In researching workplace conflict I discovered an organisation that had both become a market leader and been able to minimise levels of destructive conflict due to the strategy the organisation employed to deal with how systemic power was applied by management. This made little sense as the literature on conflict resolution overwhelming assumes that power is a separate individualised issue. What emerged from further research is that my research findings on power were consistent with what appears to be all the actual field research on power in organisations. For some reason the academic conflict resolution literature perspective of power seems to have no actual field research supporting it.

This article explores this situation. It builds on the literature review and qualitative research into workplace conflict I performed (see Harris, 2011). The article is in two sections. The first section looks at the topic of what power is and critically analyses the approach to power taken by conflict theorists in order to create a theoretical perspective within which the strategies that the organisation employs with handling power make sense. The topic of power is discussed from the perspective of Foucault. The second section deals with the organisation in New Zealand and the strategies it employed to ensure that power was applied beneficially by management.

Section One: Power in the Workplace

According to Foucault (1980) everyone has power, it exists in every relationship. There is nothing inherently negative about power (Foucault, 1994). It is neutral and the way it is used determines whether it has a positive or negative effect. It flows upwards, downwards and sideways and like water is constantly moving. It is omnipresent and part of all social interaction as Clegg, Courpasson and Phillips (2006, p.400) explain:

Relations between people are unthinkable without power because all social relations are relations of various shades of domination, seduction, manipulation, coercion, authority and so on.

Foucault clearly thought power could not be individualised as he claimed that power exists outside the individual:

Power has its principles not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up” (Foucault 1979, p.202).

Pickett (2005) explains that for Foucault (and for Nietzsche), the individual is the creation and expression of power. Both philosophers were anti-naturalists, who denied that there is something natural at the bottom of who we are. “We need to see the subject as simply the outcome of the correlation of forces, relations and practices that constitute him” (Pickett, 2005, p.11). If there is nothing natural at the core of who we are and the individual is the creation of power and socially constructed, then attributing individualised causes to conflict makes no sense theoretically, as there is no independent agent that exists.

The conflict resolution theorists who have assumed that power is a separate individualised issue within conflict, have taken a position that contrasts strongly with that of Foucault. Rather than claiming power exists outside individuals as individuals do not exist independently, they have taken the position that power does not exist outside individuals. This position is based on the assumption that individuals exist separately from one another.

There are a number of problems with their position. The first is the assumption that individuals exist separately. This assumption is controversial as it contradicts what science has discovered. As Walia (2013) explains, if one looks through a microscope at an atom “The atom has no physical structure, we have no physical structure. Atoms are made of invisible energy, not tangible matter”. Walia (2013) cites Einstein making the same point: “Concerning matter, we have been all wrong. What we have called matter is energy, whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses. There is no matter.” What Einstein is pointing out is not that we do not actually exist but rather that we exist in a different way to the way in which most of us think we exist. Walia (2013) cites Niels Bohr as saying essentially the same thing: "Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real."

If matter does not exist then the argument that we should look at ourselves as separate individuals becomes problematic as there is no real basis for separation. Walia (2013) cites Einstein making this point very clearly when he said “Our separation of each other is an optical illusion of consciousness”.

Those who disagree with these leading physicists have such a weak position that Walia (2013) goes as far as claiming they hold their position “with no good reason”. This means the conflict theorists who assume we are separate should have (at least) acknowledged that their position was controversial.

A second weakness with assuming we are separate individuals comes from the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons mean “followers mirror their leaders literally” (Goleman & Boyatzis ,2008, p.33). What this implies is that those leading organisations are at least partly responsible for the actions of those they lead. Mirror neurons mean that in organisations, the influence of the systemic power of the leader is an essential factor to consider in all conflicts. Many conflict theorists simply ignore this issue.

The mismatch between the theory and the field research within workplace conflict resolution

The results of what appears to be all the qualitative and quantitative research on workplace conflict are consistent with the view that a consideration of systemic power should be at the heart of workplace conflict resolution practices. This was confirmed by a meta-analysis of workplace research. Randy Hodson (2001) led a team of 12 that searched all the literature on workplaces. This search identified thousands of sources. They filtered this by looking for book-length ethnographies, this left 365 books. Then they looked for those that focused on a specific department, which left 84. The team coded the 84 book-length ethnographies, line by line, to obtain quantitative as well as qualitative results. This meant the results he obtained were subject to an extremely rigorous research process. Using quantitative as well as qualitative techniques, Hodson (2001) found misuse of power by management (“mismanagement”) was the only significant predictor of levels of workplace conflict. Their findings put systemic power at the heart of workplace conflict as management power is systemic.

Despite there being meta-analysis showing that systemic power should be at the heart of workplace conflict resolution practices, the majority of the conflict resolution literature takes the position that systemic power is of little importance in conflict and either do not mention power or individualise it (some examples are Burton, 1990; Lulofs & Cahn, 2000; Cahn & Abigail, 2007; Brandon & Robertson, 2007; Tillett & French, 2006 and Ellis & Anderson, 2005).

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Read More From Toughnickel

Clegg et al. (2015) attempted to draw together the various lines of academic thinking on organisational conflict to provide an overview and comparison. They performed an extensive literature review of the theoretical literature, which identified four different approaches to organisational conflict. However what was notable is that they did not identify that any conflict theorists took the position that overlooking the role of systemic power in workplace conflict was an important oversight in much of the literature. An explanation of how this could have occurred is that the conflict resolution literature describes the various alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques that conflict resolution professionals utilise in resolving conflict. ADR has its roots in individualism and takes the perspective that the causes of conflict come from individual responsibility rather than inequalities in society (Abel, 1982). Thus it can be expected that academic writings on workplace conflict will be based on the assumption that power is an individualised issue within workplace conflict. However while this explains how it could have occurred it in no way justifies what has occurred.

Stitt (1998) looked at the logic behind the widespread adoption of ADR systems by organisations. He asserts that all effective organisations have goals. As conflict exists in all areas of life and can be dealt with constructively or destructively, all organisations share a goal of wanting to deal with it constructively. This is understandable as organisations can be expected to want to minimise their costs of destructive conflict. This is because these costs are truly staggering in size. By extrapolating the data on costs of conflict from America to get a global picture, these costs can easily be estimated as being multiple trillions of dollars per annum. Some of the costs that have been quantified in America include; The CPP Global Human Capital Report (2008) which found that in the US the annual cost of conflict, in terms of worker time lost, was US$359 billion. De Frank and Ivancevich (1998) estimated that in 1998 the annual cost of work stress borne by organisations in the USA was over $200 billion. Murphy (1993) estimates the annual costs of counterproductive work behaviour (CWB) in the USA in 1993 were also as much as $200 billion.

However having a workplace conflict industry built on the assumption that workplace conflict has only individualised causes, when meta-analysis shows this is not the case, means that it can be expected that the industry will fail in its goal of reducing the levels of destructive workplace conflict. This failure has occurred. According to Masters and Albright (2002, p.29) “Conflict at work is on the rise”. Not only have approaches to conflict resolution based on an individualised view of power failed to reduce the number of destructive workplace conflicts but they have even failed to reduce a trend of increasing levels of destructive workplace conflict.

So what is going on?

It is highly problematic for conflict theorists to reach and maintain a consensus view that workplace conflict has only separate individualised causes and that power is an individualised issue in workplace conflict, when that view is contradicted by what appears to be all the actual field research on workplaces, the solutions they develop based on this view prove so ineffective levels of conflict are actually increasing, scientific research has reached such a consensus that the assumptions behind the conflict theorists view are incorrect that it is claimed those that hold this view have “no good reason” for doing so and there are serious theoretical problems with this view. So what is going on?

The thinking process that leads people to assume that they are separate and independent is known as dualism. This assumption is understandable as we all learn from a very early age that self and other are different and assume that this is reality. Dualism is “a doctrine espousing that everything in the universe is divided into polar opposites” (Del Collins, 2005, p. 263). According to Del Collins (2005) dualistic thinking is a dominant frame of reference in all forms of discourse. She identifies right and wrong, winners and losers and true and false as examples of dualistic concepts that have become entrenched in western society. However Del Collins (2005) emphasises that dualistic thinking is flawed thinking as it has a tendency to overlook the complexities of situations and be overly simplistic.

While flawed dualistic thinking leading us to believe in a separate self and other may appear to be a relatively minor misunderstanding it has far reaching implications. This is explained in a 2017 book by His Holiness Karmapa titled “Interconnected”. The Karmapa explains his position (2017,p.60)

When the Buddha taught interdependence over two millennia ago, he did so precisely because he saw that people were clinging to an unexamined assumption that we are all independent and ultimately separate. The Buddha pointed to that deeply held and widespread view as the source of our deepest confusion in life and the gravest problems in society.

What is surprising is that 2500 years later there is still confusion on this issue. This is because even though our greatest post-Newtonian scientists have regularly tried to correct the “unexamined assumption”, we have managed to largely ignore them. Einstein’s comment that “our separation of each other is an optical illusion of consciousness” could not be clearer in the challenge it poses to those that believe we are separate individuals.

That the Buddha saw confusion over the issue of whether we are dependent or independent individuals as being at the heart of much of the conflict that was occurring 2500 years ago means that it is quite likely that the same confusion is the reason for much of the conflict that occurs today.

The Karmapa (2017, p. 15) points out that we do not actually need to rely on the work of scientists to see that we are interdependent as the evidence we are interdependent is everywhere: “Once we begin to look for it, we find interdependence no matter where we direct our gaze: from the largest astronomical systems to subtle shifts in our sensations”.

The Karmapa explains that whether we view ourselves as separate individuals or as interdependent individuals forms the foundation for our most basic ideas about life. The Karmapa details how it impacts our understanding of such basic feelings as love and attachment as well as what we assume about happiness and freedom. We all share a basic desire to be happy and for most of us a prerequisite for happiness is freedom. However the assumptions many of us have that freedom means independence become nonsensical when matched to the position that one exists as an interdependent individual – independent and interdependent are dualistic opposites.

The Karmapa gives an interdependent perspective on this subject. Rather than looking at freedom as an external state of independence he suggests looking at freedom as an internal state (2017, p.138)

The Tibetan term for freedom is literally “self-control” or “self-mastery”. We have a saying “Being in control of oneself is happiness; being controlled by what is other is suffering”. What this is pointing out is that when we have self-mastery, we have access to happiness. All forms of being overpowered by others- other people or other forces, external or internal-are sources of suffering.

Humans have been making the incorrect assumption that they are separate individuals for thousands of years. The fact that conflict resolution theorists are basing their theories on this assumption today has an historical context that makes it more understandable, but is by no means a justification. Academics are expected to apply a scientific process that challenges assumptions and so the historical perspective does not change the fact that oversights have occurred within academia that have enabled this situation to occur.

What also appears to have happened is that outside elements have exercised influence to promote a conflict resolution industry based on the assumption that conflict only has individualised causes. Bush and Folger (1994) found enough evidence of this occurring to assert that there has been deliberate suppression of mediation models that did not individualise power. Cobb and Rifkin (1991, p.41) claim the concept of neutrality is included in mediation discourse to “obscure the workings of power in mediation”. As to who might have done this, there is a group that benefits from ‘separate individualisation’ of the causes of conflict. As will be shown later in this section, this group also has the power to influence academia globally. This group can loosely be called the elite- those exercising power over society. ‘Separate individualisation’ benefits this group as it is a power holding strategy. This is because it allows the use of power to remain hidden. As Foucault (1976) explains, power‘s success is proportional to its ability to hide its mechanisms. Put another way, power requires endorsement from those it is exercised over to be effective (Folger, Scott Poole & Stutman, 2005). If people do not know they are being manipulated they will not withhold their endorsement.

What is implicit in arguing that the elite are manipulating academia to keep the truth about power hidden by ‘separately individualising’ it is that there must be a pattern where areas of academic interest that risk exposing the truth about power, have key parts of their focus individualised. It is not difficult to find clues that exactly this pattern of ‘separate individualisation’ exists. Social Constructionism has become divided between those who think discourses can be created by both organisations and individuals and those that think they can only be created by individuals (Burr, 2005). The ‘separate individualization’ (from here on referred to as individualisation) that has occurred with power in workplace conflict also appears to be the same systemic power hiding strategy as has occurred with collaborative workplace systems (CWS) literature. I have been unable to locate CWS literature that does not assume that power is an individualised issue with CWS.