Power distribution and its impact on team performance

The impact of power differentials on how teams and groups work is not as straightforward as it might seem. Having a mix of powerful and less powerful people in a team, or having a team composed entirely of powerful people can both have a negative impact on performance (Angus et al, 2016). It seems that the more powerful people are, the less effective they are in tasks that require coordination with others. High power individuals tend to be over-confident, to be poor listeners, to devalue other people’s ideas, interrupt and take credit for other people’s suggestions and successes. Compared with low power groups, when working together, a group of high power individuals is less focused, less creative, has more conflict and shares less information. Where high power individuals shone was when they worked on their own.

Power can be acquired in many ways, but some of the most common in a team context are:

  • Hierarchical power (position or authority)
  • Power of expertise (knowledge)
  • Power of connection (networks of influence or information, often associated with relatively long tenure in post; and also being “in with” other high power individuals)

The implications for team coaching are considerable. The team members may well recognize that power differentials exist and affect behaviors, but are unlikely to be aware of how these play out. So what can the team coach do to raise awareness and help the team manage power issues better?

A simple exercise to bring power issues into the open is the following:

  • Ask everyone to rate themselves against each of their team colleagues against the question When you are in meetings with this person, do you feel more powerful than them, less powerful or about the same level of power?
  • In situations, where you feel more powerful, how would you rate a) yourself and b) the group or team on:

o   Listening to and being genuinely interested in less powerful colleagues’ views?

o   Working collaboratively?

o   Sharing information?

o   Valuing other people’s contributions

o   Generating creative ideas

  • In situations, where you feel less powerful, how would you rate a) yourself and b) the group or team on:

o   Listening to and being genuinely interested in less powerful colleagues’ views?

o   Working collaboratively?

o   Sharing information?

o   Valuing other people’s contributions

o   Generating creative ideas

  • In situations, where you feel equally powerful, how would you rate a) yourself and b) the group or team on:

o   Listening to and being genuinely interested in less powerful colleagues’ views?

o   Working collaboratively?

o   Sharing information?

o   Valuing other people’s contributions

o   Generating creative ideas

  • What could you as an individual do to overcome the negative effects of power differentials, when you are in situations where you feel powerful or less powerful?
  • What could the team as a whole do, to overcome the negative effects of power differentials?

The outcome of this exercise should be greater individual and collective awareness of the issues, along with practical approaches for managing them. These approaches are likely to be a mixture of structures and behaviors. Structural approaches may include:

  • Building time into the agenda of meetings, for sharing of information
  • Generating ideas quietly and individually, before pooling and discussing them together
  • Appointing one or more of the less powerful members in a meeting as “designated contrarian”, with the role of presenting alternative or minority perspectives on an issue
  • Making sure that work groups are not dominated by (or composed solely of) high power individuals

Behavioral approaches may include:

  • Rules or norms about how to flag up situations, where power issues are affecting the quality of discussions, decision-making and /or performance
  • Analysis of situations, where individuals felt themselves to be in a low power status, and that this has had a negative effect on individual and/or collective performance
  • Making power management issues part of 360-degree feedback
  • The team coach can point out when he or she observes power issues affecting behaviors in a negative way

A good starting point is for the team to recognize that high performance is more likely and more sustainable, when there is a relative “power equilibrium” and that it is everyone’s responsibility to create and sustain that state, wherever possible. The responsibility therefore becomes shared between high and low power team

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