The power plays at work and how to spot them and what to do about them

When it comes to relationships and teams, power plays can be insidious. It's easy for team dynamics to get stuck in storming and conflict as a result of these attempts at gaining control, rather than finding healthy alignment together. From the obvious - like threats or shut-out tactics - all the way down to more subtle forms like office politics which emerged even during lockdown, we need awareness around how our interactions with each other shape situations where someone is trying gain an upper hand by showcasing their authority.

A power play is an attempt to gain an advantage by showing that you are more powerful than another person or organisation, for example in a business relationship or negotiation. 

They is so ingrained into our relationships that we are almost blind when they show up and soon you realise that you the aligned, united team you are trying to achieve is actually stuck in storming and conflict. It is exhausting.

Now to some degree, jostling for position and influence is inevitable. We are social creatures and want to find our place within the group where we can be most comfortable and thrive. If you want a promotion, or to get your proposal approved, you are going to need to influence and create allies to achieve success. It can actually be a force for good as it encourages everyone to raise their game and keep moving forward rather than stagnating. However, the ugly, negative side of power plays can be harmful to you, your team and organisation. We call it toxic cultures.

when the player is more concerned about their own needs and ego than the success of the teams success.

Types of power play 

The monitor. They try to supervise you but they aren't your boss. Now in healthy teams, peers support, mentor and coach each other, especially one of the members is less experienced in a particular task. The power play comes in when someone acts like the hall monitor, self appointing themselves as the team monitor, correcting your work, pointing out errors in a group email or even reporting your mistakes to management. No one like a tell-tale, or critic and they do it to assert their power over you.
The solution. Sure you might want to bite back and level the power play, but that just creates conflict. Instead, call them out,  thank them for their feedback and then point out that your manager seems really happy with your work. You might even say, "I noticed you try to correct my work, I am sure you are coming from a good place, but it really isn't your job to monitor my work. It's actually not helpful to our relationship and I would appreciate it if you didn't do it"

The excluder. This one is so common and reminds me of school yard tactics because they are so immature. They might simply exclude you from an email, accept but then don't attend your meeting because "something more important came up", or even invite others to a team get together and don't include you. They are trying to let you know that you aren't impoertant and they are. Take it as a complement, because the truth is they feel powerless when you are around.

The solution. Name it for what it is and again, call them out. If you hear about the event before hand, invite yourself along or just say with a smile, "I hear you are meeting about xxx, You must have excluded me from the invite, but just to let you know I will be there". 
There are only so many times they can claim to forget before they are exposed for being the petty excluder. Reclaim your power and speak up.
The belittler. These kind of people scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of tactics. They purposefully try to make you look small in front of others and get personal. It might look like scoffing at your ideas, calling you stupid. Or if you are late for a meeting, they announce your arrival with "glad you could join us, can't you do anything on time?" The aim is to humiliate and shame you. 
The solution. Shame only exists in silence. Don't apologise or become the victim. If it's your boss that tries to belittle you, follow up afterwards and let them know how their comment made you feel and that you would appreciate that they don't do it again. It will take courage, but that's how you stop them victimising you.
If it's a peer, call them out on their words, "In what way am I stupid, would you care to expand?", "I apologise for being late, it's very out of character for me" or even, "What do you mean by that comment, I don't find it fair or helpful?. However you do it, do it promptly, respectfully and with assertiveness.

The blocker. Have you ever worked with someone who seems to intentionally block everything you try to do? They might ignore your emails, refuse to phone you back, delay a piece of work or just poo-poo your ideas. Blocking is a passive aggressive approach, causing you just enough harm to notice, but to little to name without appearing petty yourself. In any case, it is unhelful to the teams succcess.

The solution. You need to talk this one out with examples. Give them feedback by telling your story. "Hey, I ahve noticed everytime I need something from you, you either appear to ignore me or block me. What's going on as it's really holding us, and the team back? 
Of course they may try to deflect or make excuses, and that's OK for now. The point is you have called them out and exposed their behaviour. If it happens again, then you can raise it with you manager as a concern, but at least you have evidence, tried to sort it yourself, before escalating.
We all know that teams that work well together are more productive, but it's not always easy to get along with everyone on a team.

It's no secret that teams that fight and argue are less productive than those who get along. But what if there was a way to create a healthy team dynamic where everyone felt heard and respected?

Understanding Productive Conflict and the Five Behaviours of a Cohesive Team programmes can help! Our team workshops will help you learn about your own conflict response style and how to deal with other people's styles in a healthy way. You'll also learn about the different conflict behaviours and how to use them in a positive way. Contact us today to organise your workshop!