Skip to main content

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).

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?

Scroll to Continue

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.

There is also a theoretical argument indicating that academic enquiry into the entire area of power has been artificially suppressed. Human activity shows a pattern of continual improvement being made in all areas. Humans like to improve things. This pattern of continually striving to improve is part of human nature; it is the inevitable result of human creativity. However, for some reason there appears to be no ongoing improvement occurring with the issue of how power should be applied. Millions have died due to misuse of power by our leaders so the need to better understand this area is obvious, yet research in this area seems to be being blocked. There are only two possible explanations for this. One is that we humans are so stupid that in 3000 years, we have still not realised that investigating how best to apply power is a good idea. However what has happened with what appear to be all other aspects of life, where constant improvements are being made, shows that we are not too stupid to learn from our mistakes. The other possible explanation is that the elite have been suppressing any efforts to control the way they use power.

Before 2011 many were sceptical that academia could be manipulated for one reason. This was that no organisation existed that had the power to influence academia globally. This argument disappeared in 2011 when Vitali, Glattfelder and Battiston were able to identify a secret super entity comprised of 147 corporations that own each other. Vitali et al. (2011) used supercomputers to analyse the top 37 million wealthy individuals and organisations in 194 countries. The key organisations in the entity are a consortium of the largest private banks in the world. The secret entity they uncovered is absolutely huge, with the power to influence academia globally as it controls 96.2% of all transnational corporations. The likely perpetrator was exposed. That the mainstream media chose not to report the Vitali et al. research gives a glimpse of how powerful the entity is.

The argument advanced in the first half of this article is that the role of interdependent (systemic) power/leadership should be a fundamental consideration in understanding and resolving conflict and in particular workplace conflict. Furthermore it appears that efforts to explore the role of systemic power have been artificially suppressed, it is a no go area. The question this raises is what would happen if an organisation was headed by management that understood the importance of systemic power? The second half of this article describes such an organisation and how its management used an understanding of systemic power to both address destructive workplace conflict and create a successful organisation.

Section 2: The Case Study

The organisation had grown to a market-leading position, largely due to the approach it took with how power was managed. Sources within the management team had revealed that the organisation had almost no destructive conflict, a claim that warranted exploration. As the two key people in any big organisation who have to deal with destructive conflict are the CEO and the HR manager, both were interviewed.

The risk that they would answer from a position of vested interest was at least partly addressed by the fact that the success of the organisation eventually led a large international institution to buy it. Both the CEO (Participant D) and the HR manager had left the company after it had been taken over and that made it less likely that they painted an artificial picture. Furthermore, both were interviewed separately and both confirmed that there was almost no destructive conflict in the organisation. What made the information from the former CEO even more compelling was that she had used her approach with power to successfully grow not just the organisation, but several other organisations as well. It seems that her approach had been tested and proven effective a number of times. There were three arms to the strategy that was employed in the organisation to manage power.

Strategy 1: The CEO must set a respectful culture.

One of the themes that emerged from my research was that the CEO was the person who determined the management style in the organisation. Participant D explained why she was convinced the CEO set the organisational culture:

I think organisational culture is totally dependent on the values and ethics of the people at the top. How they are, what their culture is, who they are as people, will determine which culture you get. I have a view that the long term outcome is much better with a collaborative positive culture but that’s just because I like that. I’ve got no evidence to support this as I have never run an organisation any other way.

What research in this area shows is that it is the individual at the top that is responsible for the corporate culture rather than the people at the top. Kotter and Heskett (1992) studied 207 of the world’s largest organisations over an 11 year period. Of these they identified ten that had successfully changed their cultures. These included Bankers Trust, British Airways, General Electric, Nissan and American Express. “In every case major change occurred after an individual who already had a track record for leadership was appointed to head an organization” (Kotter & Heskett, 1992, p.84).

If the CEO is the critical individual involved in setting the corporate culture it indicates that most staff adapt their personality behaviours at work to reflect those of the CEO. Participant D was of the view that this was the case:

Staff are the same. It’s not so much who they are when they come on board; it’s who they are while they are with you and a lot of that is how you behave and how you drive their behaviour. People are a little bit chameleon like in that sense.

That staff can be expected to change their personalities at work to fit in with the corporate culture is consistent with the previously mentioned discovery of mirror neurons. In psychology it is an example of what is called ‘situationism’ (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009). Benjamin and Simpson (2009, p.16) claim the situationist view that environmental factors affect personality is now mainstream:

In recent years, personality has increasingly come to be viewed in the context of person-by-situation effects (e.g., the cognitive-affective system [CAPS] theory of personality; see Mischel & Shoda, 1995). These models have redefined personality as the study of how people habitually respond to or react in different types of social situations.

Participant D’s observation that staff adapt their behaviour to the management style of the new CEO was not based on the psychological theory of situationism but came from experience. When the organisation that she ran was taken over she was asked to stay, but not as CEO. This meant she was able to observe what happened to the culture she had created. She chose to leave the organisation once she saw it had a culture that she did not agree with and she expected that a large number of the senior management team would also struggle with the new culture and leave. However this did not occur. She observed that almost all of them changed their behaviours to comply with the new culture of the organisation. Participant D estimated around 95% of the management team changed behaviours to fit in with the new culture. This surprised her:

It was a complete shock to me that you could be one thing and then another.

Her realisation from this experience was that most people do not live according to personal values, gain their sense of identity from their job and will change their behaviours to fit in with the culture in their workplace. A combination of lack of financial independence and worries over losing a job can be expected to have played a key role in driving staff to adapt to the new culture in the organisation. However, according to participant D, staff changed their behaviours to fit in with the new culture, demonstrating behaviour that is consistent with situationism. It is worth noting that the situationist view of personality, which is now mainstream in psychology, is yet another perspective that contradicts the view that we are separate individuals.

Why organisational culture is important

Organisational culture is important because it appears to be the key determinant of organisational performance. When it came to explain why some organisations perform better than others the only critical factor Kotter and Heskett (1992, p.11) could identify was corporate culture. In particular organisations with respectful cultures outperformed those with cultures that were not respectful by a huge margin:

We found that cultures that emphasized all the key managerial constituencies (customers, stockholders and employees) outperformed firms that did not have those cultural traits by a huge margin. Over an 11 year period they grew their average stock prices by 901% versus 74% and grew their net incomes by 756% on average versus 1%.

This was a surprising finding as one might have assumed that sector determined performance- for example that energy companies made more profit than retailers. However what they found was that the factor that determined performance was organisational culture. This finding also means that some of the rules of systemic power are going to be forced onto organisations whether they like it or not. If organisations that do not have respectful cultures do not increase profits, then in time all organisations will have respectful cultures.

Strategy 2: Demand humility from managers

In the organisation the CEO had the view that one bad apple could poison the crop. This organisation moved quickly to rid itself of managers who abused power. The HR manager said the organisation had a collaborative culture that meant it took a hard line with people with difficult egos. If they did not change their behaviours to fit in with the organisational culture they were forced to leave the company, as she explained:

If somebody had too much of an ego it wouldn’t be tolerated. They would be taken aside and told you’ve got to treat people according to the way things are in the organisational culture. Anybody that was making things difficult for the company was told about that and if it got too bad they would not stay with the company.

This quote shows she held the belief that problem egos can often be managed. However this is not always the case and she gave an example of one of the managers who was forced to leave and said that the company paid more than this manager expected in order to get rid of her quickly.

What seems to be behind this approach is that if a respectful culture is critical for performance, then those staff that do not adapt to the culture are a threat to corporate performance and need to be treated as such.

While on the surface it would appear that personalities that will not be able to adapt to a corporate culture can be identified through pre-employment screening, this solution is difficult for two reasons. One is that potential employees can be expected to answer tests by giving the answers they believe will get them the job. The other was described by the HR manager of the organisation. She said there is a dilemma which organisations must deal with as they look for staff with drive and ambition, yet are aware that people like this can be egotistical and need to be carefully managed.

What seems to be causing some managers to be unable to change their personalities to fit in with the corporate culture are psychological and personality disorders and in particular narcissism. Thomas (2012) identified some of the reasons why narcissists are unlikely to be able to adapt to corporate cultures. These include an obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges, problems in sustaining satisfying relationships, difficulty with empathy, hypersensitivity to any insults or imagined insults, detesting those who do not admire them, using other people without considering the cost of doing so, inability to see others perspectives and an inability to show remorse or gratitude.

The issue of personalities that are unable to adapt to a corporate culture is an area that is going to be difficult to address. There is a significant risk that initiatives in this area could be used to get rid of employees who have done nothing to warrant losing their jobs. However there are approaches organisations can take that will help stop staff developing problem egos. James Kerr has written a book about why the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has been the most successful team in international rugby. Kerr was interviewed by The Independent about what he found. Interestingly he focused on management. He described how the culture within the All Blacks was kept respectful through a focus on humility that saw the players sweep the sheds they changed in. This practice was designed to stop the team members developing problem egos:

Sweeping the sheds, as I called it, is important because the enemy of high performance is entitlement. Being humble in your work and doing it right is very important in business, as it is in sport, and not thinking you are so special that it becomes someone else’s job to pick up after you.

The strategy of having managers perform menial tasks to prevent them developing a sense of entitlement could easily be employed in organisations. There are numerous menial tasks that managers could be tasked with performing.

Strategy 3: Decentralise power

Participant H was the former HR manager of the company participant D ran. She explained that the authority to make decisions was clearly set out in job descriptions and managers were not permitted to use hierarchical power over staff:

The power was not based at all on people’s positions, like the operations manager would not have any more I guess perceived power than the mailroom assistant. Everybody had complete control over their roles and they were given the authority to manage their roles in the way they saw as effective. They could make decisions which most people at certain levels in organisations can’t. They were encouraged to make those decisions. They were given guidance when they were new, instructed how they should do things until they were trained, but they were always given the authority from day one to make decisions about how they could make their jobs better.

What this quote demonstrates is that the management set clear rules about how power should be applied. In particular by making it clear to all managers that forcing people in lower rungs of the hierarchy to blindly follow orders was unacceptable behaviour. However it is doubtful that all staff had ‘complete control’ over their roles. There is a potential risk that giving individual staff complete control in deciding how they do their jobs results in chaos as many positions are interconnected and require collective decision making. Furthermore this approach could result in lengthy delays in decision making as staff would need to be consulted about any decision that involved them. Participant D explained that in those situations where quick decisions needed to be made, all staff understood that managers would make those decisions. What seems more likely is that within the organisation an effort was made to give staff as much control over their roles as possible, rather than giving them complete control.

What is particularly interesting about this quote is that it indicates that power dynamics can be changed in hierarchical organisations without actually breaking down the hierarchy. This is important because some theorists in this area hold the view that this is not possible. Foucault believed hierarchies were a problem and looked at how societies could operate without hierarchies (Pickett, 2005). Clegg et al. (2006) also view hierarchies as being a problem. They identify how relations of domination are invariably expressed hierarchically and suggest that hierarchies are not a particularly natural way of organisation.

However the view that hierarchies can be avoided is rejected by hierarchy researchers Greunfeld and Tiedens (2010). They claim it is impossible to find groups where all members have roughly equal status and power and that this is true for animals as well as humans. Stanford professor Bob Sutton claims that hierarchy is inevitable and that organisations and people need hierarchy.

If hierarchies are unavoidable and there are organisations such as the one that participant D led, where the hierarchy did not appear to be a problem, it appears Foucault may have made a mistake. Participant H’s comments and the performance of the organisation Participant D headed, indicate that the problem is not hierarchies but the way that power tends to be applied within hierarchies. The implication is that organisations should focus on how power is applied within the structure rather than on the structure itself. This is the most important point in this article.

The problematic aspect of power underlying the quote from participant H was power centralisation. Preventing managers using hierarchical power meant that lower ranked employees enjoyed more power in their roles as they were able to make decisions that in more typical hierarchies they would not be able to make. This process takes some decision making authority away from senior managers and so decentralises power.

The idea that decentralising power is important is not new. As James Madison (1788) eloquently explained “The accumulation of all power in the same hands, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny”. This clearly implies that tyranny should be avoided and one way to do this is through decentralizing power, something that the organisation demonstrated was linked to what seemed to be “humble leadership”.

Not only is decentralising power theoretically appealing but there is comprehensive qualitative and quantitative research that supports decentralising power. Hodson (2001), in his meta-analysis, found that to increase productivity organisations must learn to decentralise power: “The longstanding tradition of unilateral management power must be replaced by bilateral systems of power in which the workers’ voices can be heard” (Hodson, 2001, p.269).

Decentralising power is not just a strategy that is limited to making workplaces more successful. This strategy will apply to organisations of all sizes, up to and including political systems, economies, empires.

Putting It All Together

What has occurred at the organisation and what is now being identified by management research mean there is some cause for hope that the issue of systemic/leadership power will start to get the attention it deserves. As organisations that use power respectfully continue pushing those that do not do so out of the market, it is likely that the topic of how to use systemic power effectively will become more main stream. With time it can also be expected that what works commercially will flow on to the political stage. With even more time it can be expected that the flow will reach the family level.

The strategy of decentralisation is already making this transition. There are signs that political parties are starting to embrace further decentralisation. In Iceland, according to a Zero Hedge article, the Pirate party, a political party which has done well in the last election, has a policy on how systemic power should be applied. In particular this party advocates decentralising power, exemplified by the slogan: “We are not here to gain power; we are here to distribute power”.

To put this push towards decentralisation in a broader context, it appears as if a decentralisation revolution is already under way thanks to technology. Social media is decentralising the power of the press and block chain is decentralising banking power. In this context decentralising power within organisations can be looked at as part of a broad trend of decentralisation.

The perspective that participant D contributes to the emerging decentralisation trend suggests that respectful cultures and decentralising power need to be accompanied by a careful focus on managing the egos of those working within organisations. While the organisation that participant D headed is just one case study, the fact that the approach it took has been tested and proved successful with a number of other organisations makes it more difficult to dismiss this as a one off.

What all this means is that there is reason for hope that, after 3000 years of the topic of how power should be applied being kept a no go area by the elite, market forces are going to cause a breakthrough in this area. Hopefully, at some point in the future, business and political leaders and even parents will be measured by qualities that include their humility, ability to lead respectfully and their effectiveness in decentralising power. In such a situation it appears likely both that levels of prosperity will be higher and that levels of destructive conflict will be lower than they are today.

However as it stands we have a world where, thanks to the interventions of a tiny elite, dysfunctional parents, with no idea about how power should be applied, raise dysfunctional children, with no idea about how power should be applied. Our leaders are the dysfunctional result of this process and this results in much of the chaos and conflict we see occurring around the planet.

What this implies is that much of the conflict that occurs on the planet is due to the fear and misguided activity of a small elite, rather than to human nature. Imagine a generation of children being raised by parents who understand the best way to apply power. Imagine how much less destructive conflict would occur as this generation came to power. Imagine how much less destructive conflict would occur if people became more aware of the power dynamics involved in all their interactions.

A useful analogy here is that of driving cars. What has happened with power can be compared to having a world where everyone owns a car yet there are no driving rules, no road signs, no traffic lights and no driving lessons. In this world the death toll from driving accidents is huge. However this situation suits the elite, who are concerned that if driving rules are introduced their ability to do whatever they want would be threatened. They suppress all attempts to study driving or set rules and go so far as to promote a narrative that driving should be individualised so deaths can be blamed on the individual rather than on their suppression of safety measures and preventing research into why so many people are dying. The result of this is that the carnage continues. That this situation has remained in place for 3000 years is something that needs to change.


Abel, R. (1982) The Contradictions of Informal Justice. In Abel, R. (Ed.), The Politics of Informal Justice, Vol. 1. (pp.1-13). New York: Academic Press.

Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York, NY: Basic Books Inc.

Benjamin,L. & Simpson, J. (2009) The power of the situation: The impact of Milgram’s

obedience studies on personality and social psychology. American Psychologist, 64, 1, pp.12-19. DOI: 10.1037/a0014077.

Bentley, T. Catley, B. Cooper-Thomas, H. Gardner, D. O’Driscoll, M. & Trenberth, L. (2009) Understanding stress and bullying in New Zealand workplaces. Retrieved from al-report.pdf

Brandon, M. & Robertson, L. (2007) Conflict and dispute resolution. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Burr, V. (2003). Social Constructionism. London, England: Routledge.

Burton, J. (1990) Conflict resolution and provention. London, England: Macmillan.

Bush, R. & Folger, J. (1994). The promise of mediation: Responding to conflict through empowerment and recognition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cahn, D. & Abigail, R. (2007) Managing conflict through communication. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Chatterjee, C. & Lefcovitch, A. (2008) Alternative dispute resolution: A practical guide. London, England: Routledge.

Clegg, S., Mikkelsen, E. & Sewell, G. (2015) Conflict: Organisational. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 4 pp.639-643.

Clegg, S., Courpasson, D. and Phillips, N. (2006) Power and organisations. London. England: Sage.

Cobb, S & Rifkin, J. (1991). Practice and paradox: Deconstructing neutrality in mediation. Journal of law and social inquiry. 16, 1, pp.35-65. Retrieved from

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition (2014). London. England: HarperCollins Publishers.

CPP Inc. (2008) Global Human Capital Report, July 2008. Workplace conflict and how businesses can harness it to thrive. Retrieved from

De Frank, R. & Ivancevich, J. (1998) Stress on the job: An executive update. Academy of Management Executive, 12, 3, pp. 55-66. Retrieved from

Del Collins, M. (2005) Transcending dualistic thinking in conflict resolution. Negotiation journal . 21, 2, pp. 263-280. Retrieved from

Einstein quote retrieved from

Einstein quote retrieved from

Ellis, D. & Anderson, D. (2005) Conflict Resolution: An introductory text. Toronto, Canada: Emond Montgomery Publications.

Folger, J., Scott Poole, M. & Stutman, R. (2005) Working through conflict. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books, New York, NY.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/knowledge. Brighton, England: Harvester.

Foucault, M. (1994) The subject and power. In Rubinow, P. & Rose, N. (Eds.), The Essential Foucault (pp. 47-63) New York, NY: New Press.

Goldman, B. Cropranzo, R. Stein, J. & Benson, L. (2008). The role of third parties/mediation in managing conflict in organisations. In De Dreu, K. & Gelfand, M. (2008) (Eds.). The psychology of conflict and conflict management in organisations (pp.291-320). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Goleman, D. & Boyatzis, R. (2008) Social Intelligence and the biology of leadership. In HBR’s 10 must reads on collaboration (pp. 15-30). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Gruenfeld, D. & Tiedens, L. (2010). Handbook of social psychology, DOI: 10.1002/9780470561119.socpsy002033

Hansen, T. (2008). Critical conflict resolution and practice. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 25,4,pp.403-427.Retrieved from

Harris, A. (2011) Deconstructing workplace conflict resolution. MA-Thesis, AUT University of Technology. Retrieved from

Hodson, R. (2001) Dignity at work. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Jaffee, D. (2008) Conflict at work throughout the history of organisations. In De Dreu, K. & Gelfand, M. (Eds.), The psychology of conflict and conflict management in organisations (pp. 55-80) New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kotter, J. & Heskett, J. (1992) Corporate culture and performance. New York, NY: The Free Press

Lax & Sibenius, 1986). Lax, D. & Sibenius, J. (1986). The manager as negotiator. New York, NY: Free Press.

Lulofs, R. & Cahn, D. (2000) Conflict from theory to action. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn &Bacon.

Mackie, K. (1991) A handbook of dispute resolution: ADR in action. New York, NY: Routledge.

James Madison (1788) quote retrieved from

Mark Twain quote retrieved from https://www. brainyquote. com/ quotes/ quotes /m /marktwain109624.html

Masters, M. & Albright, R. (2002) The complete guide to conflict resolution in the workplace. New York, NY: American Management Association.

Mischel, W. & Shoda, Y. (1995) A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualising situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 2nd edition, Vol 102. pp246-268.

Murphy, K. (1993) Honesty in the workplace. Belmont, CA. Brooks/Cole.

Pickett, B. (2005) On the use and abuse of Foucault for politics. Oxford, England: Lexington Books.

Pruitt, D. Pierce, R. McGillicuddy, N. ,Welton, G. & Castriano, L. (1993). Long term success in mediation. Law and Human Behaviour. Vol. 17, 3, pp.313-330. Retrieved from

Robbins, S. Judge, T. Millett, B. & Waters-Marsh, T. (2008). Organisational Behaviour. Sydney, Australia: Pearson.

Stitt, A. (1998). Alternative dispute resolution for organizations. Etobicoke, Canada: John Wiley & Sons.

Sutton, B. (2014). Hierarchy is good, hierarchy is essential and less isn’t always better. Retrieved from

Sgubini ,A. & De La Roche, R. (2015) Managing the cost of conflict. Retrieved from

The Karmapa (2017) Interconnected. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Thomas, D. (2012) Narcissism behind the mask. Hove, England: Book Guild Publishing

Tillett, G. & French, B. (2006) Resolving Conflict. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Times Higher Education (2017) retrieved from!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/stats

The Independent. (November 11, 2015) Discovering how a tiny island of 4.5 million people came to dominate world rugby. Retrieved from

USA today.

Vitali, S. Glattfelder, J. & Battiston, S. (2011).The network of global corporate control. Zurich, Switzerland. Retrieved from

Walia, A. (2013). Retrieved from

Zero Hedge (October 27, 2016) Prepare for the Pirates. Retrieved from

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Related Articles