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Power Dynamics and Organizational Change Published: Monday, February 15, 2010 6:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Organizational change processes are influenced by the institutionalization of power and the behavior of interest groups in and around organizations. In organizational change, power is used by CEOs, top managers, change managers, work groups, employees, and other interest parties. The goal of these groups is to manage and influence the change process by using power and influence tactics. Power, organizational change, and resistance are closely related concepts.

In organizational change, part of the power dynamics is observable for the groups involved, and the influence attempts can be displayed directly and consciously by the agents. However, power dynamics can also be more difficult to observe and sometimes they are even unconscious. Power dynamics are invisible and almost unconscious when people's perceptions, cognitions, and preferences are shaped in such a way that they identify with the change objectives and unknowingly unconsciously accept the new organizational structures and systems while their own objectives are less realized than those of other groups.

When organizations are changed fundamentally, the existing balance of power changes as well. Forces in and around the organization trying to maintain this balance can hinder such changes while other forces can stimulate the change processes. In traditional management views, actions taken to challenge or influence organizational change processes by other groups than management are seen as resistance to change since those actions fall outside the legitimate activities of the change program. Research on this subject presents five perspectives on power dynamics and relates these perspectives to models of organizational change.

The first perspective deals with observable and intentionally used authority and legitimate power of agents. This perspective is rooted in a social psychological research tradition that investigated power bases. Viewed from this perspective, change in organizations is demanded by top managers and they need their position power in order to effect change. 

The second perspective also has power bases as a starting point. However, in this perspective personal power is required to make change happen in organizations. It is assumed that power dynamics are mostly visible. In change processes managers and consultants exercise influence by referring to facts and logical arguments thereby mainly relying on their expertise.

The third perspective is rooted in management and organization theory which emphasizes the distribution of power in organizations and the use of power by agencies to control processes of organizational change. Power use becomes visible when different interest groups negotiate about the direction of the change process.

The fourth perspective also has its foundations in management and organization theory but its focus shifts towards the less observable and unconscious forms of power use. Central issues in this view are the construction of perceptions, values, and norms through management of meaning. Transition can be achieved by following a sales model that stresses the positive aspects of the change process.

The fifth perspective assumes open discussion, visible power processes, and agents that mutually influence each other's attitudes and opinions through democratic dialogue. The change model in this perspective has many  characteristics of the organizational learning and organizational development schools.

The five approaches do not exclude each other but can be used in combinations in organizational change processes. Looking at the formal and personal perspectives, we see that the level of analysis among the five schools is the interaction between individuals. Researchers and practitioners who view power as equal to legitimate authority or expertise mainly focus on individual managers and change agents. In the structural perspective the interactions between groups is the main level of analysis. Interest groups are seen as the primary players in negotiation processes and conflicts that always occur and are needed to effect organizational change.

Both the cultural and learning perspectives take the whole organization embedded in their socioeconomic environments as the level of analysis. In the cultural perspective, management still has a leading role in the creation of shared meanings. In the learning perspective we see that every member of the organization participates in a collaborative learning process.

In general, we can not say that any of the perspectives or the levels of analysis is preferable above another. Still, in our opinion being acquainted with all perspectives broadens one's horizons and contributes to one's sensitiveness to the power issues related to organizational change.


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