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Lindred Greer: How Power Struggles Escalate

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Lindred Greer: How Power Struggles Escalate

New research shows how business leaders can minimize conflicts within their top teams.
Lindred Greer (Photo by Amy Harrity)
"Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me." Napoleon Bonaparte, 1804

Research over the past two decades has established the panoptic effect of power on people. Put simply: Power changes people. People who rise to the tops of companies and other organizations tend to prioritize their own goals and desires above those of others, fail to take other people's perspectives into account, tend to disregard other people's feelings and are, well, less polite. They act to preserve their power, sometimes aggressively, when they feel that it is threatened.

What most companies haven't recognized fully is the amount of damage these high-powered Napoleons can do, especially when the Napoleons must work together within the same team.
Lindred Greer, assistant professor of organizational behavior

What most companies haven't recognized fully is the amount of damage these high-powered Napoleons can do, especially when the Napoleons must work together within the same team.

Research we published over the past three years paints a bleak picture for organizations that ignore the damage that power run amok can do. When high-powered people work with teammates who are a potential threat, the high-powered people lash out. Conflict ensues. Because power is so valued, people within reach of the top tier of an organization will fight to retain their position at the top. We find the power conflicts in management teams are so common that teams you'd expect to be the best, such as management teams, can actually be less effective than those lower down on the organizational chart.

At best, this is an enormous loss of potential for an organization relying on its most skilled and experienced employees. At worst, conflicts result in firings and outright failures. Companies that ignore the power struggles eventually pay the price.

Our research, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that companies look toward egalitarian models of management and leadership — think King Arthur, not Napoleon — to avoid or minimize power struggles within their top teams. Clarity is also important: Teams in which power and leadership roles are established clearly, and teams in which people's perceptions of their own power match their teammates' perceptions of it, perform better.

To do our research, we used surveys and archival data from a telecommunications company and a multinational financial corporation, and confirmed our results in a laboratory setting.

We found key differences in the way low-powered and high-powered teams function. In low-powered teams, hierarchy helps: Without a hierarchy, a power vacuum develops and the teams aren't sure which way to go. In management teams, a hierarchy, such as vice presidents working with C-suite executives, or C-suite executives vying for the CEO slot, has the opposite effect. It gives ambitious people a ladder to fight over, increases the conflict and reduces effectiveness. Establishing an egalitarian culture in high-powered teams isn't easy. Organizations can change the environment in which the executives are operating, but they probably can't transform the characters of the executives or the addictive nature of power.

Our research suggested three steps that organizations could take. King Arthur, when faced with a council of ambitious knights, brought peace to his team by building a round table. In the medieval legend, each knight had a role to play: Sir Lancelot was the greatest champion, Sir Galahad was the purest of heart, Sir Gareth killed the Red Knight and so on. Organizations can reduce conflict within their management teams by following a path toward shared power and clear roles.

  1. Define, discuss and reinforce roles. Problems in management teams go away if team members can reach clear, accepted agreement over roles and standing and continue to reinforce those as time goes by. If a departing CEO names a successor, fighting among the lower executive ranks who are eyeing the top spot might be reduced. Conflict can also be better managed when each team member's expertise is recognized and deferred to. A person who feels confident in his or her role is less likely to feel threatened.
  2. Establish shared decision-making. Members of high-powered teams feel less threatened by other team members when decision-making is shared. Shared power reduces the real or perceived power differentials among members. Democratic decision-making styles, such as agreeing by consensus, or informal votes, are an aid here. The concept of servant leadership may serve a CEO well here to help delegate decision-making.
  3. Provide conflict training and create a culture of respect. Management teams that have sufficient training in conflict management skills are better at recognizing conflict and addressing the real underlying issues. Power struggles often arise in discussion of tasks or seemingly mundane process matters, such as what day of the week meetings will be held. Teams can establish a culture of respect in those discussions; or find creative ways to expand the hierarchy pie, so that each person in the team has power, though perhaps not in the domain he or she wants. Recognizing which team members are engaged in a power struggle and resolving it quickly and respectfully is artistry possessed by a few great leaders. Our research showed how worthwhile it is for an organization to invest in fostering that ability.

Business leaders and board members who ignore power struggles within their management teams do so at the organization's risk. Napoleon unchecked ravaged Europe. What effects are unchecked Napoleons having on your company?

Lindred Greer is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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