The push and pull of power in intensive English programs

…a review of Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership (2nd Edition) by Gilbert W. Fairholm

Power has a bad reputation in educational environments. In many people’s minds, it is associated with terms like ‘power-hungry’ or ‘greedy for power,’ and yes, I’ve heard it used by faculty to describe what they see as overreaching administrators trying to control their work.

But power, according to Fairholm, is ethically neutral; it is the  motives of the individuals who use it that determine whether its outcomes are positive or negative. And power is intrinsic to any group of people that aims to get things done, so reading a book about organizational power politics can give you insights not only into your own power and how to use and increase it, but also into the power tactics of those around you. In turn, you will gain a deeper understanding of how your organization works, and especially why some people or groups are more powerful than others.

In any group or organizational setting, power is the ability to control scarce resources in order to achieve your aims, even if others oppose you. While you may think of power as coercive (hence its reputation), power is exerted in a number of ways, listed by Fairholm on page 12, ranging from coercive at the top, to consensual at the bottom:


Those who are higher in the organizational hierarchy are more likely to be able to access the direct forms of power at the top of this list, while those lower down may exercise the indirect power types at the bottom. Yet power is not only about where you are in the hierarchy, and other sources of power include expertise, criticality to the organization, and group solidarity. This means that the exercise of power can be inverted, and power can be exerted upward. Fairholm describes “the power exercised by… lower-level workers who dominate their superiors through their control over resources (e.g., skill) the leader needs” (p. 55).

In many educational settings, especially in universities, there is a tension between faculty and administrators over the use of power. While it may be inappropriate to talk about who is higher and lower in the hierarchy, this struggle often manifests as one between authority legitimized by formal position among administrators, and the threat exercised by faculty who know that their expertise and skills are critical to the institution. Faculty in many university intensive English programs are challenged by the administrative invocation of the authority of non-negotiable accreditation standards. Fairholm sums this situation up concisely: “Promulgation of standard operating procedures, requiring prior (or post) approval of subordinate decision or actions and an over-adherence to organizational traditions, exemplify this tactic” (p. 125). Note that in the case of IEPs, it is often ‘organizational traditions’ that are promoted by the faculty in opposition to the ‘standard operating procedures’ imposed by the administration.  Note also that teachers in proprietary IEPs have long been subject to organizational standard operating procedures, and are unlikely to be able to draw on institutional tradition as a counter-weight. This is one reason why proprietary IEP teachers have relatively less power in their organizations than their university counterparts.

If you want to understand the workings of power in your organization, and gain insight into your current power and how to increase it, Fairholm’s book – with its sharp analysis, questionnaires, and lists of strategies – is a good place to begin.

Fairholm, G.W., Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership, 2nd Ed., Praeger 2009