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November 29th, 2016

Success: Power and Conflict


This is the third post in our series of three on success and its consequences. Already we have explored the effect that success has on our morals, ethics, and the decisions that we make. We have also examined success through the lens of talent and ego and how they affect us on both a personal and organizational level. Here we look at the impact success has on our perspective on power and the resulting conflict that can occur at the leadership level and throughout the organization in general.


In order to gain power in the first place, a leader must have a combination of three components. The first is that the title and position held must have formally established authority over other positions in the organization. Secondly, the level of education and expertise must be recognized as being relevant and of a calibre that is appropriate for said position. And finally, there needs to be a personal component that is attractive to others, which typically is a combination of respect and liking.


 “A powerless leader is an oxymoron, because a person without power can’t lead and therefore isn’t truly a leader… In organizational behaviour terms, power is the potential to influence and influence is the activation of power.” (Nelson, 2016)


Does power change who you are, or enhance qualities you already possess?

The literature read for this post was not in agreement on this question. Those who stand with the “power changes you” camp believe that it goes to your head and you begin to prioritize your own goals and desires above others – and even the company – in order to preserve this power, especially when you see it as being threatened.

In the other camp are those who view power as a magnifier of who you really are. The reasoning behind this is that there is a certain freedom that power gives you to be yourself because you are in control. In her article for New York Magazine Melissa Dahl quotes Barack Obama:

“Let me tell you something about this office that I’ve been in for eight years. Who you are – what you are – does not change after you occupy the Oval Office. All it does is magnify who you are. All it does is shine a spotlight on who you really are.” (Obama, 2016)

While these differing opinions may disagree on the effects power has on the self, both discuss it with the cautionary caveat of the pursuit of power not being for everyone.


Why conflict arises

Conflict stemming from success and power can arise in a multitude of ways and for a number of reasons. The key areas are related, but can be broken down into four buckets:


Power pyramids:


A lack of cohesion:






The pros and cons of conflict

Just like with any story there are two sides to power and conflict in organizations.

On the negative side of the coin there is the sneaky way that holding power spreads from the control that is specified over certain aspects of career, personal life, and even over other people, to the belief that power applies to other things outside of their prescribed circle of authority.

The arduous process of hiring, or promoting highly talented people to positions of power becomes a moot point if these high powered individuals cause the organization harm and need to be let go.

On the reverse side of the coin there are positive elements to power and conflict, it isn’t always an indication of dysfunction. Organizations that have little or no conflict can actually stagnate. The belief that everything is fine, leads to a decline in innovation and organizational agility. In this sense conflict can actually instigate creativity.


Ways to keep conflict in check

There is always going to be power struggles and egos in organizations. Being able to handle them and mitigate negative conflict is the key to long-term success.

There were a number of ways of doing this that were outlined in the literature:


The final three suggestions can really be boiled down to having a leadership team that has a healthy level of emotional intelligence. The concept of EQ deserves an entire post on its own, so for now the basics will be linked to here.


Even in horizontally organized companies there is still going to be a hierarchy in the power structure. Because of this, there are always going to be too few top positions for the number of people competing for them. Those who do not succeed will have to face this reality and make peace with it or, move on to another organization and repeat the process over again.

Power and people's perception of it guide how they feel and interact with their superiors, peers, and subordinates. Managing this perception in a healthy way not only mitigates negative conflict, but also encourages creative conflict.



In her December 2016 HBR article, Annie McKee falls into the ‘power corrupts’ camp. Throughout her studies she has seen many leaders get to their position without doing personal introspection. “While they seem to have learned EQ along the way, it’s often fairly superficial… When it comes to self-management, a lot of leaders learn to manage the outward expression of emotion but don’t have a clue about how to deal with deep-seated emotions such as insecurity or how they feel about power and authority.” This is explored in more detail in the first post in our series on success, the overarching idea being that the issue is deeper than someone being “good” or “bad,” and rather reflects our lack of training in how to deal with success once it has been achieved.

How you feel about power, the perks that go along with it, and where family, your health, happiness, morality, and well-being rank against power, as well as how you react to others with power – especially when their power affects and influences you, and how all of these feelings influence how you value yourself are all important questions that should be asked if the goal is to achieve a powerful position in leadership. Asking the “why” behind each of these aspects of power could lead to the type of introspection McKee sees is missing and could go a long way in determining whether the pursuit of power is being done for the right reasons.








Sources used in this post:

Baer, D. (2016). Powerful People Think Differently About Their Thoughts. Science of Us. Retrieved 12 November 2016, from

Dahl, M. (2016). Psychologists Echo Obama’s Belief That Power Reveals Who You Really Are. Science of Us. Retrieved 20 November 2016, from

Fradera, A. (2016). Psychology can explain why wildly successful teams get tempted to the dark side. Quartz. Retrieved 4 November 2016, from

Goleman, D. (2016). Divisive Times Call for Emotional Intelligence. LinkedIn. Retrieved 14 November 2016, from

Greer, L. (2014). Lindred Greer: How Power Struggles Escalate. Stanford Graduate School of Business. Retrieved 9 November 2016, from

Greer, L. L., Caruso, H. M., & Jehn, K. A. (2011). The bigger they are, the harder they fall: Linking team power, team conflict, and performance. Organizational Behavior and human decision processes116(1), 116-128.

Guttman, H. (1999). Conflict at the top: Infighting can make a top team its own worst enemy. American Management Association.

Kraus, M. (2016). Psychology suggests that power doesn’t make people bad—it just reveals their true natures. Quartz. Retrieved 6 November 2016, from

Laseter, T. (2016). The Line between Confidence and Hubris. strategy+business. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from

Rahim, A., Garrett, J., & Buntzman, G. (1992). Ethics of Managing Interpersonal Conflict in Organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 11, 423-432.

Roth, D. (2013). Infighting is Toxic and Probably Running Rampant at Your Company. LinkedIn. Retrieved 4 November 2016, from

Zaleznik, A. (1970). Power and Politics in Organizational Life. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 10 November 2016, from