How to Navigate Power Dynamics in the Workplace

Posted on January 28, 2024 | Updated on June 11, 2024

Power dynamics in the workplace can influence how your staff gets along and how profitable your business is. Understanding and identifying them is crucial to success.

What Are Power Dynamics in the Workplace?

Sometimes, one person has power over another. Usually, this impacts how they get along. In the workplace, power dynamics are an invisible power structure that influences how people engage, view, and interact with each other. While they are typically natural and good for business, they are also often negative and can be damaging.

Why Are They Important?

Power dynamics in the workplace are significant because they set the tone of the workspace. You must make sure they’re positive and balanced since around 92% of employees feel a healthy company culture is somewhat or very important. Most people want to work in an inviting, neutral space — and it’s your responsibility to ensure that happens.

You must pay attention to which small business power dynamics impact you because workers often notice them first. Even though over 50% of employees feel their employer doesn’t realize how unhealthy their company culture is, 43% don’t know how to broach the topic without negatively affecting their job.

Types of Power Dynamics in the Workplace 

Since there are many ways someone can have power over another person, there are multiple kinds of power dynamics. 

Here are the most common small business power dynamics: 

  • Coercive: A person’s ability to punish, ostracize, or discipline can give them power over colleagues or subordinates.
  • Positional: When someone is in a position of authority, they automatically have power over others. Even if they don’t abuse their power, everyone else is keenly aware of its existence.
  • Referent: This dynamic is brought on by being well-liked in the workplace. People with referent power can use their good reputation to influence others.
  • Connection: People with a professional network often have an advantage over their colleagues. The same applies to those connected or related to an influential person.
  • Expert: People with niche knowledge can wield their expertise as a bargaining tool.
  • Reward: A person’s ability to offer rewards, promotions, or praise impacts how others view and interact with them. 
  • Political: Most people avoid or dislike workplace politics. However, some people thrive on pitting people against each other and using flattery to gain favor. 

Small business power dynamics could be any mix of these. Even though you run a smaller operation than most large companies, these power dynamics can appear in any setting. 

Examples of Power Dynamics in the Workplace 

Workplace power dynamics can significantly impact your business and your staff.

Here are realistic examples of power dynamics in the workplace: 

  • Coercive: A person’s superior keeps making inappropriate remarks, making them uncomfortable. They want to report it to human resources but are scared they’ll get assigned all of the worst duties or lose their job by doing so.
  • Positional: A manager doesn’t want to deal with a project, so they ask their subordinate to take on the extra work. The person they ask already has a lot on their plate but agrees because they feel they can’t say no to a direct supervisor.
  • Referent: One employee has worked at the company for decades and is well-liked by everyone. One day, they get into a minor dispute with the new hire. Almost everyone takes their side, making the newcomer feel shunned and unwelcome.
  • Connection: Two colleagues have stayed late for weeks to work on a big project. The supervisor often lets one go home early because they’re close friends. Behind closed doors, the supervisor praises their friend’s work and leaves out the other worker.
  • Expert: At one company, only one person fully understands how to use a business-critical application. They demand inconvenient favors from their superiors, threatening to quit otherwise. Since their expertise is crucial, they get their way.
  • Reward: Everyone knows the most deserving employees will get quarterly bonuses. Since the whole thing is at their manager’s discretion, they feel they must give in to every unreasonable request or get skipped over when rewards get handed out. 
  • Political: An employee wants to be first in line for a promotion. To raise their chances of getting it, they talk behind their competition’s back and buy their superiors lunch to gain undue favor. 

Although workplace power dynamics can have positive effects, every one of these examples is negative to highlight the potential impact they can have on your business. 

Are there Disadvantages to Workplace Power Dynamics? 

Unbalanced power dynamics can tremendously impact you, your employees, and your business. 

  1. Belittling Behavior 

When someone biased holds power, it makes others hesitate to call out their behavior for fear of facing negative repercussions. As a result, people have to endure derogatory or belittling remarks. Unfortunately, 6 in 10 American workers experience workplace discrimination. 

  1. Poor Collaboration

Power dynamics between colleagues can cause friction, making it challenging for them to genuinely engage with each other. Employees are supposed to be equals. In reality, some people act like their co-workers’ superiors. This mentality causes tension and can lead to infighting or even sabotage.

  1. Employee Disengagement

Employees who feel the power dynamics in the workplace are unhealthy will quickly distance themselves from the root cause — meaning they’ll disconnect from their colleagues, managers, or duties.

Disengaged workers could cost you thousands of dollars in lost productivity. According to experts, they cost the global economy $8.8 trillion every year. Noncommittal attitudes might seem insignificant, but they aren’t good for business. 

  1. Unhealthy Competitiveness 

Informal workplace power dynamics between employees often cause an unhealthy air of competitiveness. When people feel they need to outdo their colleagues to gain favor or progress in their careers, they might undercut or impede others from getting ahead. 

Many employers pass up deserving candidates for promotions, praise, or rewards because of power dynamics. In fact, over 60% of employees have witnessed favoritism in the workplace. Ultimately, your business takes the hit as productivity and engagement dips.

  1. Prolonged Resentment 

Employees build up resentment each time a power dynamic impacts them unjustly. In fact, over 64% of people say they’ve experienced toxicity in the workplace, with 53% saying they’ve left jobs because of it. Although you may not notice it, your staff could be unhappy. 

Advice for Improving Power Dynamics in the Workplace 

Don’t feel concerned if you think you have unhealthy power dynamics in the workplace — it only takes time and transparency to improve things. 

  1. Identify Motivations

If you identify what motivates your staff, you can see which workplace power dynamics are healthy and which aren’t. Once you know, you can address the issues to make them feel more comfortable at work. 

  1. Guarantee Transparency

Small business power dynamics thrive on secrecy, so guaranteeing transparency can eliminate them. Whether you deal with bonuses, punishments, promotions, or job descriptions, make everything clear for your employees.

  1. Look Inward

Power dynamics often exist because the people in charge cause them or don’t address them. For instance, while three-quarters of employers have merely witnessed favoritism, 23% admitted they’ve practiced it. To fix the issue, you must first identify your role in it.

  1. Encourage Feedback

You can only create a healthy company culture by encouraging employee feedback and building trust. Ensure there’s a discrete way for them to submit complaints and suggestions so they don’t fear repercussions. 

  1. Address Unbalance

Carefully shed light on unhealthy power dynamics and discuss how they’re not welcome in your business. If the issue concerns a single employee, have a one-on-one meeting to clear the air and establish professional boundaries.

  1. Promote Positivity 

With enough effort and oversight, power dynamics in the workplace can be positive. For example, someone with referent power can convince the other workers to sign up for a fun company event. Find ways to turn negatives into positives. 

Navigate and Address Unbalance in Your Business 

As a business owner, it’s up to you to identify and navigate power dynamics in the workplace — no one else has as much power as you. If you adequately address them, you can improve how things run and how employees interact with each other.

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