How to analyze power dynamics in a team context, and why this is important
An important element of any teamwork environment is the power dynamics that exist in the group between individuals. In this context, power includes the real or perceived ability to make and/or influence decisions regarding the project and/or the team members’ involvement, including deciding who joins and leaves the team, as well as a less well-defined ability to influence how the team or team lead(s) perceive a team member and their work. Power dynamics within a team can often influence people and events beyond the context of the team environment, particularly if you are likely to work with these collaborators in future teams, so it is always a good idea to pay attention to them.
There are different sources for this power, some of which are relatively easy to identify and follow a clear structure while others can be invisible and difficult to define, but no less influential. An important characteristic of power dynamics is that they are often compounding; one individual on a team may have access to multiple sources of power, which can lead to significant imbalances and can be a fertile breeding ground for a toxic work environment. The most common power sources in any team, organized from most to least obvious, are institutional power, expert knowledge and/or seniority, access to resources and socially constructed identities.
It is important to spend some time mapping out the power dynamics that exist in any team you are part of because they will influence any conflicts that occur within the team, often including ones that may appear on the surface to be a simple case of personalities clashing. Understanding how the power dynamics involved are influencing a conflict will help you to more clearly see the options that you can access to deal with it, particularly when assistance from other team members or from people outside the team would be the best strategy to take. This will be discussed further in part seven, conflict resolution strategies from a non-leadership position.
Sources of Power
In any workplace environment, the most obvious source of power is through the institutional hierarchy of the team and/or organization, and the roles that individuals hold in that hierarchy. A manager has more power than their subordinate because the former sets expectations for the latter’s role, evaluates their performance and at least has influence if not final say over whether or not they remain in their position. This source of power is characterized by being formalized within the context of the team, and can be granted by others (if the team exists in the context of an organization or if the lead is decided by the team democratically) or claimed by a team lead, if they are the ones putting the team together.
Usually this type of power source is the easiest to map out, although there are circumstances when it may be less obvious. For example, someone that holds a senior position in an organization as a whole may not have a position of leadership on a particular team, but if other members of that team have less power than them in the organization outside the team, it will be a factor in the power dynamics of that team.
Expert Knowledge and/or Seniority
Team members who have greater seniority on a team or in an organization and/or who have expert knowledge in an area of relevance to the project also hold relatively obvious power on a team. Team leads may be particularly likely to hold this source of power as well as institutional power. However, in teams where the lead is new to the team or other team members have greater expert knowledge, it can lead to interesting dynamics as a result, either resulting in a positive environment where power is balanced among team members or a negative one where power struggles may occur. This source of power is generally characterized by being something that is slow to achieve but can’t be given to you by others, nor can it be lost once you have it.
Access to Resources
An often less obvious potential source of power on teams is if members on the team have differing access to resources. “Resources” is deliberately vague as this can be very industry- or even team-specific. An example of this might include the financial ability to travel, perhaps to a conference or to meet with collaborators, if the project budget can’t accommodate travel for team members and it is up to individuals to pay their own way. In this example, not being able to travel may mean that some team members are able to build stronger networking relationships with collaborators or future colleagues than others, or may even mean that important project decision-making is made de facto only by those members who were able to travel.
This power source doesn’t have to be solely based on an individual’s personal access to resources, it can also be a factor if a team consists of members from different organizations, and those organizations have different levels of resources. For example, a team member in one organization may be given few duties outside of their work on the team, and therefore will have a lot of time allotted to working on it, while a team member at a different organization may have many other duties assigned to them and may have significantly less time to spend on the team project. The team member with more time available is likely to receive more positive feedback and generally make a better impression on team leads than the other team member, which can impact reputations and future job prospects.
However “resources” is defined, an important characteristic of this power source is that it is determined by factors outside of the team itself and the role that team members hold on that team, and therefore can be easy to overlook. It also can sometimes be ameliorated, for example by making sure that any resources that the project requires are provided for in the project budget and are made available to all team members or by tracking team members’ contributions based on the resources (such as time) that they have available to the project.
Socially Constructed Identities
It should no longer be controversial to state that socially constructed identities, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation to name a few, play a role as a source of power in workplace environments. In the United States, the privileged identities that are most commonly sources of power are: white, cisgender male, heterosexual, Christian, lacking a disability, middle-to-upper socioeconomic class, and US citizen. If you hold one or more of these identities, then you have access to privileges that are invisible to you that often translate into advantages in work environments. If you do not hold one or more of these identities, you may experience overt to subtle discrimination and/or harassment as a result, and at the very least this identity or identities has the potential to place you at a disadvantage during conflicts and generally in times of stress for the team.
Until quite recently, this source of power was often the least obvious in work environments (at least to those with privileged identities), and in many cases there were active efforts to obscure it as a source of power. While these efforts have been challenged significantly across society in the past year, there are still many places where it is downplayed and discussing it as a source of power imbalance in a team context would be extremely risky. While this source of power can be extremely influential by itself in some team environments, it is more often a compounding source of power that combines with one or more of the other sources of power above to amplify some team members’ power over others.
Different industries and regional cultures often influence which socially constructed identities are particularly privileged in a given team. Additionally, most people hold both privileged and marginalized identities, which can make it difficult to determine when this source of power is a factor in a particular situation, or how exactly it is playing out. For example, if a conflict occurs between a white woman and a man of color or a straight person with a disability and a gay person without a disability, it may not be immediately obvious which privileged identity holds more power, and is likely to be very context specific. However, because the teams we work on operate within the larger society of the United States, we and our team dynamics are always affected to some extent by the values and prejudices of the larger society and it is important to keep this in mind when thinking about power dynamics on a team.
All of the sources of power listed above are usually at play in any given team, and they have great influence over interactions and relationships between team members, especially in times of conflict. Humans in general are quite good at subconsciously analyzing power dynamics in any given social context, and we often act and react based on that subconscious understanding without consciously analyzing why we are doing it. By taking the time to consciously analyze power dynamics in a team, you will be better able to understand interactions and relationships, both your own and among other team members, that impact your personal and professional goals, the cohesion of the team, and sometimes the project’s productivity. Understanding all of the factors that are contributing to a situation gives you the opportunity to consider more options for how to react or address it. This is especially important in times of conflict, when stress makes critical thinking difficult, and can make it seem like we have no choice but to endure a bad situation.