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Power dynamics in the workplace [manager’s guide]

9 min read

Power dynamics in the workplace influence communication patterns, feelings of psychological safety, and organizational culture. Negative experiences with power dynamics in the workplace can cause employee stress and high turnover.

In this article, we’ll look at the different kinds of power dynamics in the workplace and how managers can foster positive power dynamics rather than a toxic environment.

What are power dynamics?

Power dynamics refer to the ways in which power is distributed, exercised, experienced, and negotiated within a particular social or organizational context. It involves the relationships and interactions between individuals, groups, or entities where one party possesses or exerts influence or authority over others.

Sometimes we think of power as a quality a person has or doesn’t have. However, power is not something you can own, not something static. Because power exists between and among people, it is an ever-changing force—that’s what the word “dynamic” means, after all. So, when we talk about power, we are talking about interpersonal relationships. Power is always relative. Power is always relational.

Power dynamics in the workplace: boss and employee in discussion

Types of power dynamics

Power dynamics in the workplace can be formal or informal, positive or negative.

Formal vs. informal power

  • Formal power comes from someone’s title or place in the organization’s hierarchy.
  • Informal power is when a person’s influence stems from sources other than titles. This can include a persuasive personality, longevity or experience, cultural privilege, strength of relationships, etc.

Positive vs. negative power

  • Power can be positive, such as using your influence to build a more equitable workplace culture.
  • Power can be negative, such as bullying or abuse.

Within these larger categories, there are many types of power dynamics. These include:

  • Legitimate power: The authority given by an organization
  • Reward power: The ability to reward someone
  • Coercive power: The ability to punish someone
  • Expert power: Possessing skills and knowledge
  • Referent power: When you have gained respect and a reputation for trustworthiness
  • Informational power: Having access to or controlling the distribution of information
  • Ecological power: Control over the physical work environment, directing how the work will be done, what tools will be used, how the group will work
  • Connection power: Based on who you know, your networks and relationships with influential people

Sources: Jim Hoar, University of Minnesota; French and Raven; Morton Deutsch

Examples of power dynamics in the workplace

Power dynamics in the workplace can manifest in various ways. In fact, it may be difficult to think of situations where power dynamics don’t show up in some way, whether positive or negative.

Examples of negative power dynamics in the workplace

  • In a team meeting, the manager consistently dominates the discussion, dismissing or downplaying input from junior team members.
  • Colleagues deliberately withhold important information or resources from others, exerting control and undermining collaboration.
  • A new employee challenges an established workflow or process, prompting resistance and pushback from more tenured colleagues who perceive the change as a threat to their power.

Examples of positive power dynamics in the workplace

Power may be easier to spot when it is used in a negative way, but power dynamics can also contribute to positive change.

  • Mentorship and coaching: A senior employee supports a more junior employee in gaining influence and building skills.
  • Delegation and empowerment: A team leader distributes power and decision-making authority.
  • Inclusive decision-making: Higher-ups incorporate employee input into their decisions.
  • Recognition and appreciation: People with power publicly acknowledge the contributions and achievements of others.

When used responsibly and ethically, power can be a force for positive transformation, driving innovation, engagement, and growth within organizations.

Understanding how power dynamics affect the workplace

Power dynamics shape many experiences in the workplace:

Company culture

  • In a workplace where power is centralized at the top, employees may feel discouraged from contributing their ideas and disconnected from the larger mission.
  • Conversely, in organizations where power is distributed more evenly or those with power leverage it in positive ways, employees feel more valued and motivated to contribute to the workplace culture.


  • Power imbalances can influence communication patterns within the workplace. For example, employees may be afraid to speak up, or someone may withhold information to maintain power. In environments where power is concentrated at the top, communication tends to be one-way, with directives and decisions flowing downward without much opportunity for input or feedback from lower-level employees.
  • Transparent communication practices, where information is shared openly and feedback is encouraged at all levels of the organization, can help mitigate the negative effects of power dynamics on communication.


  • Organizations with centralized decision-making can stifle collaboration, as employees feel discouraged from challenging authority or sharing innovative ideas.
  • In environments where power is distributed more evenly and decision-making is participatory, collaboration tends to thrive as individuals feel empowered to contribute their perspectives and expertise.

Employee engagement and retention

  • In environments characterized by high levels of power imbalances, employees may feel disengaged, demotivated, and disillusioned with their work.
  • In environments where employees feel empowered, valued, and respected, they are more likely to be engaged in their work and committed to the organization’s goals.

How to create positive power dynamics in the workplace

Choose managers wisely

When companies need to fill a management position, they may look to promote the highest-achieving employee from that team. So, the best salesperson becomes the manager of the sales department, or the most talented software developer starts managing the team of developers instead.

“In many companies, the path to promotion and greater responsibility only comes through managing others,” writes Silicon Valley executive Deb Liu. To have upward momentum in your career, moving from individual contributor to manager is often the option presented. “The problem, of course,” says Liu, “comes when you’re asked to take on those responsibilities without understanding the ways management differs from what you were doing before.”

When hiring managers, assess which employees may be ready to become managers. Consider both technical proficiencies and soft skills. How has this person shown that they will prioritize empowerment, collaboration, and inclusivity? What is their approach to conflict? Have they demonstrated the ability to communicate with honesty and transparency? Good managers are role models for their team members. Their behavior sets the tone for the team culture. Choose managers likely to contribute to positive power dynamics in the workplace, and they will inspire employees to do the same.

Provide or seek training in soft skills

If you were recently promoted to management, congratulations! As you are no doubt aware, much more than your title has changed. Your work is now other-directed in a new way. In addition to setting project-based goals, make sure you’re taking the time to define your values and aspirations as a leader. Remember that tasks like coaching and culture-building are not add-ons or nice-to-haves—they are essential, core responsibilities of your new role. According to the authors of The Leadership Pipeline, “Though this might seem like an easy, natural leadership passage, it’s often one where people trip…they make the job transition from individual contribution to manager without making a behavioral or values-based transition” (source).

Managers should have both the work skills and the social skills needed to lead a team. A promotion to management should come with training in management skills. Without these skills, new managers can become insecure and overcompensate for that feeling by exercising negative power dynamics.

Create a healthy workplace culture

Be proactive about addressing any misuses of power, information hoarding, or cliques. Establish clear expectations about how power and information are shared on your team. Set boundaries regarding acceptable behavior and provide guidance on how to address any conflicts or concerns.

An effective manager empowers their team members. Encourage employees to take ownership of their work and provide them with opportunities for professional growth. Seek feedback regularly on how the team experiences power dynamics in the workplace.

Recognize and reward behavior that contributes to the positive power dynamics you’d like to see on your team, such as collaboration and information-sharing.

And most important, lead by example: model transparency, fairness, integrity, and respect. Hold your employees, your peers, and your own bosses accountable for building a healthy work culture.

Encourage open communication

As a manager communicating with employees, you can model open communication in a way that contributes to positive power dynamics.

  • Practice active listening by giving employees your full attention and seeking to understand their perspectives without judgment.
  • Share information about organizational goals, challenges, and decisions openly, and provide context behind decisions to help employees understand the rationale.
  • Create opportunities for employees to share ideas and voice concerns.
  • When giving feedback to employees, consider how power dynamics might shape this sometimes stressful interaction. Focus on specific performance issues with actionable suggestions for improvement.
  • Acknowledge and recognize employees’ contributions publicly.

You can also model positive power dynamics when communicating with your fellow managers and with organizational leadership. Many of the suggestions above—active listening, sharing information, celebrating success—also apply to peer-to-peer interactions.

When you take the time to build relationships across departments, you contribute to a culture of trust and balanced power at your organization.

Avoid silos

When groups or departments are isolated from one another in “silos,” it rarely bodes well for power dynamics in that workplace. Silos can contribute to negative power dynamics in several ways, including:

  • Concentration of power in certain departments
  • Competing for or hoarding resources
  • Lack of transparency, leading to lack of accountability
  • Communication breakdowns
  • Inhibition of collaboration
  • Resistance to change
  • Fractured culture, with allegiance to the team rather than the overall organizational mission

Managers may have a tacit incentive to uphold silos as a way to maintain power. However, if managers are committed to improving power dynamics in their workplace, creating a healthier culture for their teams, they should work together to break down silos. This can be approached in many ways:

  • Reinforce the overarching mission of the organization.
  • Promote collaboration across departments by creating opportunities for cross-functional projects, task forces, or committees.
  • Identify and break down communication barriers between departments.
  • Clarify roles to make sure there’s no duplication of efforts. This also helps prevent turf wars and the demoralizing experience of doing redundant work.
  • Reward collaborative behaviors.
  • Provide cross-training to foster a more holistic understanding of the organization’s operations.
  • Align incentives with organizational goals rather than individual departmental objectives.
  • Lead by example, and regularly evaluate and adjust.

Consider power dynamics during meetings

“Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics,” according to the Interaction Institute for Social Change. “Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent.” They suggest thinking through these questions when organizing a meeting:

Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?

Leadership consultant Jim Hoar also emphasizes the importance of meetings in shaping an organization’s power dynamics. For planning and strategy meetings, he suggests, “ask what the impact will be of the ‘boss’ attending the meeting. What is the purpose of the meeting and will attendees feel safe and comfortable expressing themselves with that person in the room?” The boss in this situation may be you, or may be someone higher up.

If the team would benefit from discussion time without the Big Boss present, this can be discussed with that person in advance. Hoar suggests language such as “Hi, I’m prepping for meeting X. I’m thinking about the impact of you being in the room for Y topic. What do you think about giving us the first half hour to brainstorm/contribute before you arrive?” If you are the Big Boss, you can be proactive in offering this time to your team.

Develop self-awareness

You as a leader, and those you’re coaching toward leadership, must develop self-awareness around power dynamics. As a manager, you have the formal or legitimate power that comes with your role. You also have the power to reward and punish, the power to share or withhold information, and many other flavors of power. Even if you feel like you don’t have much power at work, it’s important to really see where you fit in your workplace’s web of power. A lot of people benefit from power structures without realizing it. In addition, a lot of people miss opportunities to leverage their power and influence to make a positive impact.

So, a manager’s first task is to understand their blind spots (everyone has them!) and what personal biases they hold (everyone has these, too!). Try a power mapping exercise to reveal the big-picture power dynamics at your company and where you fit in.

Self-aware managers recognize the impact of their actions. This awareness enables them to adjust their approach to promote positive power dynamics and build trust with their team members. After you make a decision, follow what happens next. Who was affected, and in what ways? What changed, and how was that change experienced? You don’t have to do this every time, but the occasional “post-decision audit” can be fruitful in understanding your power.

Self-awareness allows managers and leaders to manage their emotions and reactions effectively, particularly in challenging or high-pressure situations. By staying composed, they can navigate power dynamics with sensitivity and professionalism, minimizing conflicts and fostering constructive dialogue.

Managers can use self-awareness to align their values with their actions. This type of integrity sets a positive example for others and contributes to a culture of transparency, fairness, and accountability in the workplace. If you haven’t taken the time to articulate your values, you are less likely to call upon them when taking action.

A conversation navigating power dynamics in the workplace

Personality types and power dynamics

Personality types play a significant role in shaping power dynamics within the workplace. This is because your personality type shows up in each interaction you have with coworkers.

Tools like the DiSC assessment can improve power dynamics in the workplace by developing both individual self-awareness and interpersonal communication skills.

For example, it can be useful to learn how people of each DiSC style typically influence others.

  • Someone with an i style likely uses charm, optimism, and energy when they want to influence people.
  • An S-style person is more likely to use patience and empathy.
  • A C-type individual may use logic and exacting standards.
  • D-style people probably call upon assertiveness and competition in these situations.

All of these natural tendencies have their benefits, as well as their downsides when overused.

Fostering a positive work culture involves addressing power differentials, promoting fairness and accountability, and providing opportunities for employee participation and growth. Through personality assessments and other tools, managers can commit to building healthier power dynamics on their teams.

Manager in home office navigates power dynamics in the workplace

Avery Harris-Gray

SC style, NY based. Writing about Everything DiSC and The Five Behaviors since 2020. Leadership style: humble. EQ mindset: composed. I always have snacks to share.

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