HR Pros – Negative Power Dynamics in the Workplace

Introduction to power dynamics for leaders

Formal power structures, written and described in company documents and handbooks are well-understood by leaders and most employees.  Informal structures can be hidden from leaders and though sometimes subtle, employees learn to respect them.

Today’s workplace includes significant unwritten “agreements.” Informal power structures and processes are established over time and become well-entrenched status quo.

Those with informal power steer their peers away from employees who they see as a threat, punishing those who ignore these warnings with marginalization, information control and rumors.


Eventually, everyone “gets the message” and learns to go along. These tactics can be mild but can be extreme and abusive when particular employees are targeted.

These unfortunate behaviors can result in turnover, productivity decline and unfair victimization of targeted employees. Those targeted are often the high performers and ethical associates who might speak up when they see something unfair. Just the folks you want to retain.

When leaders attempt to disturb these informal power arrangements, efforts will be met with resistance. Shortly after implementing positive changes which might consequence offenders who mistreat employees, the negative behavior may escalate which is actually a signal to leaders that they’re on the right track. This is because when their go-to tactics no longer work for them, those who stand to lose their informal power will up the ante to preserve it. Knowing what to expect along with a well though – out plan is essential to shifting a culture of abuse and intimidation toward comprehensive positive change.

A word about remote teams. Though it’s a little more difficult to control teammates when workers are spread out, it can be done by clever employees motivated by power. Those with a drive to control others will play this out wherever they work. The best way to uncover this behavior is to listen carefully to your team members when they are upset about coworker behavior. Watch for subtle signs of negative control – silent treatment; favoring friends over others; increase in drama. You can watch for facial expressions and body language over zoom.

When considering shifting your social culture to a healthier standard, you can involve you high performing and ethical employees in developing communication materials to initiate your change project. For more information, several posts on this blog address shifting culture for the better.


(c) Benoit Consulting, LLC 2021 all rights reserved

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