How to keep power dynamics from ruining company culture

Toxic power dynamics can progressively harm the culture of an organisation. Heeding the early red flags may be better than damage control

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Power dynamics at the workplace refers to the balance – or imbalance – among people who share a professional relationship. With healthy and positive power dynamics, every employee feels as though their voice matters and they get to play a role in decision-making. An environment of unhealthy power dynamics, on the other hand, is typically marked by the misuse of privilege by a few in relation to lower-level employees and subordinates who are often marginalised. Not addressing privilege and power dynamics — in the form of nepotism, harassment or bullying, generates fear, mistrust and toxicity — damages the company culture. Human resource leaders offer a slew of suggestions with regard to checking this insidious practice.

Pick up the early signs

“Power is not bad in itself,” says Emmanuel David, MD, Grid International India. “It’s like water. If channelised, it generates electricity; if unchannelised, it causes a flood,” he cites an example, adding that the problem arises when power is deployed to protect one’s vested interests.

“Usually, there are early warning signs. The individual – or clique – may display a sense of entitlement, or may not treat others with respect,” David points out. “While picking up those signals early and flagging them may be perceived as an indicator of bias, the sooner the abuse of power is detected and acted against, the better,” he emphasises. He also notes that in many cases, CXOs and others rectify their behaviour when there is early disapproval from the higher management.

“An open work environment in which the HR engages with employees on a daily basis is important. In fact, they should try and be on cordial terms with every employee”

Ranjeev Singh Gautam, former CHRO, Sunino Group

David’s second suggestion relates to taking empirical evidence into account. “Today, there are plenty of metrics that organisations may look at,” he suggests. “For instance, declining employee satisfaction scores or customer satisfaction scores may allude to a deeper problem. Likewise, a spurt in customer complaints or unusually higher attrition may be read as an early portent of deteriorating power dynamics” he elucidates.

Systemic changes

According to Jayesh Sampat, former CHRO and senior HR leader, toxic power dynamics are the result of the concentration of power in only a few hands. These are individuals who enjoy special privileges and misuse their status for personal benefit, eroding the thoughtfully-built culture of an organisation. Sampat suggests systemic changes to bring about an overhaul.

“An organisation’s structure, systems, processes and practices should be re-aligned in order to redistribute power and give it to those who will rightfully deploy it for doing their work. Moreover, decision-making must be democratized,” he counsels.

Sampat cites his professional work experience to drive home his point. “In my experience, a matrix design or organisational structure, comprising multiple lines of reporting, ensures that power is more evenly distributed than the traditional hierarchical structure”.

“Power is like water. If channelised, it generates electricity; if unchannelised, it causes a flood”

Emmanuel David, MD, Grid International India

He further underlines the need to implement practices that foster transparency, open communication, and free flow of information, to enable a positive work environment free of fear and exclusion. “Such practices ensure that information is not hoarded by a few, but is readily accessible to all employees,” he opines.

However Sampat adds a word of caution. “The people in power – those causing the power imbalance – are likely to resist any attempt to change the status quo. A lot of positive political acumen is, therefore, required to usher in changes that will foster a healthier culture,” he says.

Break up their power

Ranjeev Singh Gautam, former CHRO, Sunino Group, believes that individuals who have a sense of entitlement or privilege are usually employees who joined a company with the founders. “Their proximity to the leadership makes them feel they are invincible,” he says.

When it comes to restoring the balance of power in an organisation, Gautam suggests communicating the problem to the employees concerned without the slightest hesitation. “They must be told they are not doing the right thing,” he explains.

In case there is an overly aggressive group or one that is involved in the abuse of power, Gautam suggests breaking up their power by sending them to work across the organisation, to different departments or office locations. In the end, if nothing works, disciplinary action can be initiated against them, or they could be terminated, he advises.

“The people in power – those causing the power imbalance – are likely to resist any attempt to change the status quo”

Jayesh Sampat, former CHRO and senior HR leader

The bane of the system

Allowed to fester unchecked, power dynamics could adversely impact a company’s working environment, causing loss of morale and motivation, a steep increase in staff turnover, deterioration in quality of customer service, lowered productivity levels, and subsequent loss of revenue. Is there a way to nip the toxic trend in the bud – before its ramifications begin to manifest?

“An open work environment in which the HR engages with employees on a daily basis is important. In fact, they should try and be on cordial terms with every employee,” recommends Gautam. He goes on to add that such mutual amicability will ensure that employees fearlessly come forward and articulate their concerns, professional or personal. This could help curb controlling behaviours at the onset.

David cites an example from his professional life to underscore how putting a stop to such tendencies is not always simple. “A CEO, at one of the organisations I worked for, wanted to bring in a known acquaintance for a role in the company. Although I expressed my misgivings to the Board, they let him have his way,” he recounts. Later, this CEO and his aide began to systematically get rid of older employees who were not aligned with them. This helped them consolidate their own position and power at the organisation. “All this while, deliverables and targets were being met, but at the grassroots, all wasn’t well,” recalls David.

Finally, the Board took stock of the situation and initiated action against the CEO. “However, a lot of damage had already been done to the cultural fabric. To turn a blind eye to early indicators just because deliverables are being met is a bane of our corporate system,” rues David.

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