Conditions for Employees` Pursuit of Power by the Use of Language

Term Paper, 2002

30 Pages, Grade: 97%

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction 44

2. Three levels of conditions 77
2.1. Environment 88
2.1.1. Degree of motivation for political behavior 88
2.1.2. Degree of Unambiguity 1010
2.1.3. Degree of Organizational Susceptibility to Rationality 1010
2.2. Skills 1212
2.3. Perlocutionary Response 1414
2.4. Summary 1818

3. Practitioners' View 2020
3.1. Environment 2222
3.2. Skills 2323
3.3. Perlocutionary Response 2626

4. Conclusion 2828

5. Appendix 3232
5.1. Rhetorical Power in Committee Meetings 3232
5.2. Most Common Power Tactics 3333
5.3. Power Tactics with Superiors 3434
5.4. Power Tactics with Peers 3434
5.5. Power Tactics with Subordinates 3535

6. Bibliography 3636

1. Introduction

"Power" is a phenomenon that can be found in nearly all kinds of organizations in all periods of history. Every form of human interaction is usually accompanied by the evolution of certain power structures, i.e. by group members finding their individual roles in an organizational framework, thereby rendering some of them more powerful than others. In ancie nt times, power within organizations, i.e. in clans, was mainly determined by physical strength: the strongest members possessed power due to their ability to fulfill the basic needs of the clan - nourishing its members - better than anybody else, thus the dependency of the clan on their capability provided them with power.

In today's complex societies, organizational structures are determined by other factors. Organizations establish hierarchies, based on various "explicit" and "implicit" criteria such as skills, past success, experience, and education (explicit), or age and political behavior (implicit). These hierarchies are based on what literature calls "position power"1, i.e. the power that comes along with a certain job title. However, this does not necessarily mean that individuals high in positional status also possess the most power over the people in their environment. According to a wide-spread interpretation in research, one potential source of power is admittedly the so-called "legitimate power", i.e. power being invested in a person's position and which is also called "formal power" or "authority".

However, there are, on the other hand, different kinds of power sources that do not need to relate to position power, such as "reward power" which describes a person's ability to reward someone for compliance, "coercive power", representing the opposite of reward power, "expert power" which is based on special expertise, or "referent power" which is usually associated wit h a person's charisma2. It would for example not be an unusual situation to find a person with high positional power who obtained this position mainly due to his or her intellectual skills while at the same having an extremey introvert personality. If a subordinate of this individual were a very charismatic person, than this subordinate is likely to have more referent power than his supervisor, although being low in positional status.

Power in general can be defined as a rela tional concept that refers to "the ability of an individual to get another person to do something despite resistance, respectively getting this other person not to do something he or she wants to do"3. As can be seen, this general concept does not contain elements like "formal power" or "positional status". Instead, this idea of legitimate power due to positional status focuses primarily on the explanation of power as a result of knowledge and resources.

This so-called "exchange perspective" suggests that hierarchical position provides superiors with resources that they can spend to cause advantageous behavior4. Although not everyone has this kind of resources at his or her disposal, there are other means available to all members of an organization which can lead to the acquisition of power. One of them is the use of language which is the instrument that is discussed in this paper.

The nature of language itself is being regarded differently by various groups of researchers. The so-called "ethnographers" view the use of language as a mirror to social reality, whereas "conversation analysts" claim it to be a social reality per se. The "materialist approach" interprets language as an important medium for the outcomes of the accomplishment of both social structure and social action5.

As for the relationship between language and power, we have to apply a different concept to power than the described resource-dependency approach in order to understand the mechanisms that can be caused by an appropriate use of language. It must be taken into consideration that organizations are to a certain extent self-designing6 so that they can be seen as systems of patterned activity in which participants attempt to develop explanations and convince others of these patterns of activity7. Reality is regarded as being subject to individual perception which can be shaped. Therefore, language can not only describe the reality, but reality can actually be created by language8.

An example could be jury members who declare a defendant guilty. As a consequence, this defendant then can also become guilty in the mind of the public.9 The jury represents a shared symbol of the public. It symbolizes the capacity to decide what is wrong and what is right, and therefore, by its verdict, the jury has in fact constructed a social reality10. Apart from reality creation, language is also a powerful medium for managing identity and solving problems11 although in fact problems might in fact not be really solved but instead they just might appear to be solved due to the usage of appropriate language, as will be discussed below when examining the phenomenon of analytical language.

On a more abstract le vel, language creates power by making things become taken for granted which is reflected by the "social construction" definition of power12. Power creation by language can therefore have much more unobtrusive consequences than other tools. It is not mainly focused on quieting and defeating opposition, but much more on shaping values, preferences, cognitions, or perceptions, so that individuals finally see certain things as natural, unchangeable, divinely ordained, or beneficia l13.

Compared to archaic power enforcement rituals, language can substitute the use of raw power or brute force. As mentioned by Edelmann, "force signals weakness in politics, as rape does in sex. Talk, on the other hand, involves a competitive exchange of symbols, referential and evocative, through which values are shared and assigned and coexistence attained14 ". Words can be considered building blocks of structure that have audible or visible manifestations in the form of utterances, discourses, or sentences15.

With regard to its outcomes, it is generally recognized that although the use of political language is not directed to substantive outcomes but instead to sentiment outcomes, it may have a large effect on an organization's overall power structure. However, it occurs in a more subtle and indirect way than power caused by dependency-aspects: since language justifies and legitimizes actions or situations, it can give a situation a certain intended meaning16. This is possible because meanings are not static entities which remain once and for all in some "psychologically constructed bins17 ". Instead, they emerge through the communication process engaged in.

When we assume that the ability to give meaning to activities is crucial in the strive for power within an organization, then the knowledge about the effects of language becomes extremely important. Giving meaning to activity is only one part of "reality management", a large leverage will only be obtained if one can also put this meaning in words, because only then it becomes a social fact 18 .

To summarize, two aspects of language make this medium a highly relevant one for political behavior within organizations: first, it is available to everyone, i.e. to superiors as well as to subordinates; second, it can generate a tremendous amount of power in a very elegant way for the individual who knows how to use it.

2. Three levels of conditions

The purpose of this paper is to develop a model based on scholarly research which identifies three levels of conditions that determine the degree to which individuals, independent from their position power, i.e. especially subordinates, are likely to try and to succeed in gaining power within an organization by the use of language. Moreover, these levels will be compared to practitioners' literature in order to determine to which degree the scientists' viewpoint differs from that of the practitioners.

Regarding the aforementioned different levels of the model, they are arranged in a hierarchical order, i.e. the higher levels depend on the lower ones. Furthermore, there exist also some interdependencies among them, with the middle level being the most decisive one. The first level relates to the environment in which an individual is situated, the second one to the individual's skills with regard to an effective use of language, and the third one to the perlocutionary response of other persons over whom he or she seeks to gain power.

2.1. Environment

Two aspects of the environment determine the political action of a subordinate. The first one is the degree of motivation which relates to factors that make the individual feel inclined to use language as a political means. The second one is the environmental aspects that make the use of political language likely to be effective and successful. These aspects relate to the nature of the organization with regard to its susceptibility to a certain language as well as to its degree of unambiguity.

2.1.1. Degree of motivation for political behavior

The level of political activity of any subordinate will be determined by how secure and independent he or she feels19. A power struggle with a superior or a peer - even though it need not be an explicit one - might always also result in a defeat, and the subordinate will judge by the nature of the environment whether the potential gains will outweigh the detriments, considering the overall riskiness involved. Sillince describes this as "upward rhetorical power"20 which is interpreted as the use of language in order to scrutinize organizational policies.

Although generally only individuals with rather low positional power seek this kind of power at all, their behavior mainly depends on the stability and vulnerability of their position. If they enjoy e.g. a high job security, or when they are not employees but independent consultants, or when the environment is highly unionized, they might want to challenge organizational policies or scrutinize group members with high positional power, thereby striving for upward rhetorical power.

However, if their organizational position is less secure, the contrary will be the case.

Individuals with low positional power will then tend to rely on the members with high positional power as patrons, and they will mainly give sycophantic feedback to supervisors' statements.

Therefore, only if these basic requirements of security or independence are sufficiently fulfilled, an individual will be motivated to challenge the status quo.

Furthermore, the self-conception of the organization will determine the subordinate's intrinsic perception of whether the attempt to gain any other kind of power although not being endowed with position power is "appropriate" or not. An organization's self-image is often directly reflected by the organization's internal language. Following the concept of describing an organization either as "market", a "bureaucracy", or a "clan"21, the following table provides some examples for the different descriptions of positions and relationships.

Table 1: Internal language in different organizational environments

illustration not visible in this excerpt

An individual's reaction to a person with higher position power will differ, depending upon whether that person is called a "supervisor" or a "counselor", and also the perceived distance to individuals on the same positional level will depend upon whether they are regarded as competitors or peers. This aspect can also be found in literature concerning politeness theory. Findings in this area state that power and perceived social distance are reliable predictors of how much and which kind of linguistic work an individual will use22.

2.1.2. Degree of Unambiguity

Research on the importance of the social context for anchoring and defining individuals' perceptions of their own status has found that the degree of ambiguity of the environment is one of the decisive factors23. When a situation is ambiguous and there are no clear physical cues to resolve the uncertainty, persons will seek to communicate informally with others24.

Through this process of informal social communication, a shared and more stable set of perceptions about the events taking place will be developed which could result in an advantage with regard to a subordinate's power position as perceived by the others. In this process of informational social influence, what each person believes becomes dependent on the emerging consensus regarding the content and meaning of events taking place25. The meanings of decisions made within an organization become defined and shared by the various organizational participants.

2.1.3. Degree of Organizational Susceptibility to Rationality

As pointed out above, power due to the phenomenon of reality creation means giving a meaning to certain things. One way to achieve this legitimization is rationalizing.

This describes a person's action which is directed to supporting something by reason or cause26. Rationalizations are selected primarily when they are acceptable explanations in a given social context, i.e. when they fit with the facts as known according to the rules of behavior generally followed. The susceptibility of an environment to the language an individual might want to use will therefore not only determine the degree to which this individual might be motivated and inclined to use political language, it will also determine the degree to which this individual is likely to be successful in his or her attempts, i.e. the degree to which the use of political language will be effective. In formal organizations, the process of rationalizing is often the "political language of analysis".

These organizations regard planning and rationality as a kind of a religion27 in terms of its power of justification: something that can be supported by an analysis is hardly ever challenged and its validity is taken for granted. Members of the organization tend to have a strong belief in the efficacy of planning, and this belief constitutes an ideology which is not empirically examined just as nobody would attempt to empirically prove the existence of God28.

The scientific character of analyses appears to be the result of a value-free rationality29, although they might only obscure the use of power and politics that may be the actual motivation for these instruments. There are manifold examples for this phenomenon, not explicitly described in academic literature, but much more implied in everyday articles about the foundations of decisions that have been made in various formal organizations. With regard to the use of this language by subordinates, it becomes obvious that any individual will have the more success with the use of the language of analysis the more his or her environment is susceptible to this language.

A business organization for example will therefore be much more receptive to allegedly rational analyses than an environment in which rationalism and materialistic values are not so important, e.g. a cultural institution like a theater or an opera house where decisions are not necessarily mainly based on numbers.

Another factor that contributes to the susceptibility to analytical language is an increase in resource scarcity or organizational entrenchment. There is plenty of evidence that in these situations, the size of the administrative component may actually increase30. This phenomenon is owing to the fact that political contests and struggles are likely to be more intense when facing scarcity than when resources are plentiful. In abundant times, there is less need to veil the use of politics with rational analysis and planning, because there is less politics to hide. Given a state of scarcity, generally more analysts and planners produce documents and political language in order to justify the decision being made.

Therefore, in these times also an analytical statement of a subordinate is likely to have a bigger and more powerful effect than otherwise. Coming up with a profound analysis of a topic that he or she is likely to benefit from will get more attention and render him or her more powerful in times of crisis when "facts" are perceived to matter more than position power.

An example would be a government establishing a large planning apparatus in order to react to certain problems that might occur. In this case, actions and policies taken would be perceived as "good" and "effective" just because they were planned and because the actions would carry the imprimatur of technological rationality and thus legitimacy31.

2.2. Skills

The central condition that has to be present in order to cause an effective use of language is skills. It is obvious that even though a subordinate might be highly motivated to use political language due to a secure environment which might also be very susceptible to this language, he or she needs to have the knowledge about which linguistic elements and instruments result in which perception by this environment. Especially the practitioners' literature confirms the centrality of this aspect in manifold ways as it tries to explain the effects of different rhetorical acts. Some specific examples will be discussed in section 3 of this paper.

In scholarly literature, Sillince introduced a model that relates committees, power, accountability, and conflict32. The components of the model that are related to the rhetorical power and their relationships can be found in the appendix. In the following, the different rhetorical variables and their impact on rhetorical power according to this model will be described.

The model was originally created with regard to discourses in meetings, but with certain modifications, i.e. the omission of some of the parameters, it can also be related to general oral interaction within organizations.

On the basis of empirical studies, 11 rhetorical practices were identified which involve the use of certain argumentation elements and the avoidance of others. Eight of these practices are considered to have influence on rhetorical power. Proposals are being defined as claims or recommendations like prescriptions, descriptions, predictions, and explanations, while reasons are facts or rules that are used to imply a proposal. Another element are questions and answers, with unanswered questions usually being asked by those low in status and answers usually increasing the respondent's power. Challenges are brought up in order to bring validity claims into doubt, and rebuttals are defined as responses to challenges.

An important element regarding an individual's power position within a committee is Repeated efforts to raise a topic. While they are no explicit challenges, these unsuccessful efforts are usually being made by individuals with low positional power who want to express their disquiet but who don't want to do this by challenges due to a certain deference to leaders.

The last two variables that are relevant to rhetorical power are topic avoidance and topic widening. Although individuals with positional power determine the agenda of a committee meeting, it is subject to a skillful use of language to negotiate other topics than those on the agenda. Rhetorical expertise can bring about changes in beliefs, commitments, and awareness of committee members by strategies like e.g. hinting, persistence, and evasion. Whereas topic avoidance is a closing, topic widening is an initiation by means of redefining the topic. It occurs when a previously raised topic is expanded.

All these elements are said to have different effects on rhetorical power. Rhetorical power accrues from the use of language, and it is subject to an individual's ability to persuasively present his or her arguments. Using elements like challenges, rebuttals, and questions will reduce their rhetorical power.

Five rhetorical practices are said to increase rhetorical power: Proposals (P) put one's interests before others, rebuttals (Re) defend one's own position, topic avoidance (TA) directs a discourse away from aspects the individual does not expect to benefit from, topic widening (TW) leads a discussion to topics where one will gain benefits, and answers (A) increase expert power.

On the other hand, three practices can reduce rhetorical power: Repeated efforts to raise a topic (RE) imply the ineffectiveness of a person, questions reduce expert power, and challenges (C) brought up as a minority opinion are not likely to be successful and therefore also reduce power.

Based on these observations, rhetorical power of an individual j is described as a relationship among the elements:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Although being expressed as a mathematical equation, there have not been any empirical attempts to verify the model so far. Apart from that, it certainly can not be interpreted in a strict mathematical sense, instead it only illustrates an individual's rhetorical power position subject to the use of the described practices. It is not sufficient to use one of the power- generating instruments frequently, a person also should try to avoid the power-decreasing practices, because someone who e.g. tries to navigate a conversation in a certain direction ("Topic Widening" or "Topic Avoidance") is not likey to appear very powerful when he or she at the same time permanently keeps asking questions about everything.

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, it is essential to know about these relationships before anyone can employ them successfully. This knowledge can arise from two different sources: education or experience. Being well trained is one reason for making somebody understand the mechanisms that are being caused by the use of certain rhetorical elements, and this education can either come from academic literature or from the numerous practitioners' articles or various seminars offered.

Another cause of the necessary skills might be that the subordinate has sufficient experience with regard to the use of the described variables. As will be discussed in the next section, a person must anticipate what effects the use of a certain language is likely to cause, and one way to achieve this are iterations33, i.e. obtaining a high degree of familiarity with the environment as well as with the reactions to different utterances.

2.3. Perlocutionary Response

The third level that determines the effectiveness of political language relates to the addressee's interpretation of what another individual says. Although language was called the "dress of thought" by Samuel Johnson 200 years ago, thoughts might be very different across individuals, and therefore, what is being regarded as their "dress" might differ a lot as well. Just as people don't always say what they mean or as they don't mean what they say, other people don't always understand what they are intended to understand. Discourse analysis therefore regards the implicit assumptions made by the participants in a discourse as crucial to the applicability of certain rhetoric al rules34.

While many researchers in the early stages focused extensively on the speaker, others also discussed the relationship between the intentions of the speakers and the interpretations of the listeners35. Based on this concept, a communication act can be described by the following categories:

1. Locutionary act
2. Illocutionary act
3. Perlocutionary intention
4. Perlocutionary response

The term "locutionary act" describes the process of verbalizing, i.e. of saying something. "Illocutionary acts" are of a nonlinguistic nature, e.g. gestures, and they are often used simultaneously with locutionary acts in order to define the context and stress the meaning of the accompanying utterance. "Perlocutionary intention" relates to what the speaker intends to achieve by his chosen combination of locutionary and illocutionary acts. The "perlocutionary response" on the other hand describes the listener's interpretation of the speaker's perlocutionary intent. It is this variable that determines what finally gets created by a speaker's remark.

With regard to the general relationship between utterances, i.e. speech acts, and their impact on the addressee, several research findings confirm the claim from section 2.1.2 that the degree of ambiguity of the environment or divergent perceptions of reality are positively correlated to the effectiveness of these reality-defining and meaning-creating acts36. Referring again to the example of the jury that in fact makes a defendant guilty in the mind of the public by declaring him guilty, this effect is more likely to occur when the public does not have a precise and private attitude towards the defendant's guiltiness.

However, even in spite of a high degree of equivocality of the environment, i.e. the addressee being receptive to somebody trying to give meaning to things, the addressee's interpretation might not match the speaker's intention. This is owing to the fact that the speech acts might be even more ambiguous than the environmental framework.

The speaker's intention is not always clear because especially when using political language, it is neither likely nor appropriate to make use of very explicit language like e.g. "I think that I'm more competent than our boss, therefore you should attribute more power to me than to him". Thus, speakers will intentionally disguise their perlocutionary intention, especially if it is not congruent with certain values or beliefs.

As a consequence, listeners may misunderstand the locutionary act and misrespond to it. Examples for this situation can be found in the following table which relates to statements made by a superior and the interpretations by the subordinate37:

Table 2: Alternative Constructions of a Locution

(Speech act performed by boss, interpretation by subordinate)

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As for the case of a subordinate performing locutionary acts in order to improve his or her power position among colleagues, the following table38 shows some more examples for possible gaps between locutionary intentions and perlocutionary responses.

Based on the concept used in the table above, utterances made by a subordinate are shown in the first column, while the underlying message can be seen in the second column. The third column outlines how the statements may be interpreted by a colleague of the speaker.

Table 3: Alternative Constructions of a Locution

(Speech act performed by subordinate, interpretation by individual on the same hierarchy level)

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Consequently, two kinds of homogeneity have an influence on the correct anticipation of the perlocutionary response: homogeneity referring to the speaker and the addressees, and homogeneity of the addressees among each other. Both are positively correlated to an individual's ability to correctly decide which locutionary act to use. The more similar the common background and the tacit understanding of the power-seeker and his or her addressees, the more they are likely to speak "the same language" in terms of the match between intent and response. Moreover, the more homogeneous the addressees among each other, the easier it will be for the speaker to influence them because once he or she decoded their pattern of perlocutionary responses, he can apply the same language to everybody.

As for the phenomenon of ambiguity, one has to distinguish between ambiguity of the environment and ambiguity of the speech act. Both kinds of ambiguity have different effects on the perlocutionary response. The greater the ambiguity of the environment, the bigger the addresses' need for resolving uncertainty. In this case, an addressee will tend to read more "between the lines", hence they are more sensitized to the perlocutionary intention than to the mere speech act.

On the other hand, the greater the ambiguity of the speech act, the more difficult it is for the addressee to detect the underlying intention correctly. With regard to the relationship between the ambiguity of the environment and the ambiguity of the speech act, it can be reasonably assumed that they are negatively correlated: the more ambiguous the environment, the lower the necessity to disguise perlocutionary intention, because addressees will be more tolerant toward utterances that are not congruent with prevailing cultural values like e.g. politeness.

2.4. Summary

The different elements described in the previous sections can be summarized in the figure below. Three levels determine the degree of the use of political language in order to gain power within an organization. Firstly, the individual must be motivated to do so by his environment which is determined by the individual's degree of secureness and independence. Secondly, the environment must have certain characteristics that make the use of political language likely to succeed.

This is determined by the organization's susceptibility to certain language as well as by the situation's overall degree of ambiguity: the more susceptible and the more ambiguous an environment, the more effective the use of language will be.

Only when this first level bears the necessary characteristics, an individual will consider to use political language. In this case, he or she must also have the knowledge of how to use this language and what effects it causes. The general effects of rhetorical practices can be illustrated by the model of Sillince, whereas specific aspects of the different instruments are an extensively treated issue especially in practitioners' literature. A certain degree of rhetorical education can contribute to these skills as well as a large amount of experience.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that any individual also needs these skills in order to analyze the environment, thus the second level does not only depend on the first one, instead the first one will only be correctly recognized by an individual when the necessary skills are present as is being indicated by the dashed arrow in the figure.

Finally, only when a person possesses the skills to intentionally and precisely utilize language, concerns about the perlocutionary response of addressees matter.

A high degree of homogeneity among speaker and addressees will favor the correct anticipation of the reaction to certain utterances. Moreover, the more the speaker has to disguise his or her actual intention, the more ambiguous the speech act becomes, and the lower the probability that it will be interpreted as intended. On the other hand, the more ambiguous the environment is, the more the addressees will look for reality-creating statements, and the less a speaker will have to disguise his or her intention.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

3. Practitioners' View

Nearly all mechanisms that have been introduced so far are based on academic literature. Therefore, it now has to be examined to what degree practitioners' journals confirm these findings or whether any additional aspects appear to be relevant that have not been accounted for. Most of these journals do not focus on an abstract explanation of circumstances but rather on the personal consequences on the individual's behavior.

The purpose of practitioners' literature is not to explain certain phenomena in the light of different scholarly aspects, instead it is often focused on giving advice to individuals who find themselves confronted with certain situations or behavioral questions. Therefore, it is mainly these aspects which can be found in the various publications.

Furthermore, the terminology used differs sometimes significantly from that of academic publications, it is more concrete and enriched with examples which makes it sometimes diffic ult to detect patterns that were identified in scientific literature.

However, the overall amount of similarities that were found seem to validate most of the scholarly findings.

Practitioners confirm that power does not only relate to resource dependency but instead can also be found as part of every interaction on and between different hierarchical levels in either direction. It is described as a recurring feature which is used by all employees. Therefore, it is considered not only important in situations that are typical for individuals high in positional power like the task of controlling scarce resources, negotiating agreements, or establishing professional goals, but also for the establishment and pursuit of personal goals, or for directing others' energies toward certain goals. It was found that power tactics were consequently used extensively, independent from hierarchical status39.

However, apparently this was not always the case in the past. Regarding the power relationship between middle managers and employers, an increasing power position of the middle managers was found to occur only in the last decades. This increased power is mainly attributed to these managers creating and successfully managing horizontal networks and informal information40 as it was suggested by Peffer on an academic level41.

In a broader sense, it was stated that the idea of a corporation as the property of the current holders of its shares does not properly reveal anymore where power lies. It is claimed that the employees of corporations should be regarded as citizens of a community with the difference being the fact that a community is something to which one belongs, while it, in turn, belongs to nobody. These statements are primarily addressed to individuals with high position power who are sensitized to the phenomenon that also their subordinates are likely to successfully strive for power, e.g. because in some environments, trade unions gathered a lot of influence which increased the employees' perception of secureness42.

Also the academic findings regarding the power of words related to mind control and the creation of reality were confirmed. It is seen as a very effective means in people's strive for power to make others believe that they have arrived at their decisions and beliefs by their own choices which strongly reflects the social construction definition of power, i.e. making things become taken for granted43.

Moreover, practitioners' journals recognize the function of language beyond a merely descriptive nature. Instead, the use of language is regarded as suitable to influence another person's perception and values. Educational literature claims that it is necessary to communicate this aspect very clearly to students and to alert them to the repercussions of linguistic nuances44. In order to illustrate this phenomenon, examples are mentioned like the difference between the government using the term "revenue enhancement" instead of "tax increase", "underprivileged" instead of "poor", or "incident" instead of "crisis at a nuclear plant". Also some other authors recognize that it is possible to intentionally create a gap between our real and declared aims by language45.

3.1. Environment

Comparing the elements of the environment level as introduced before with the practitioners' literature, the aspects of secureness or independence could not be validated as determining factors except for some statements about the general effects of a unionized environment46. However, this does not necessarily mean that these factors are not valid. Instead, their exclusive presence in academic research might be owing to the fact that they can be regarded as exogenous factors to an employee. Consequently, there is little chance to give practitioners any good advice on changing this status quo, as opposed to e.g. giving specific rhetorical instructions.

However, with regard to the other aspects mentioned in the environment section, evidence could be found that the effectiveness of instruments used depends on the organizational relationship between the people involved which reflects the criteria concerning the promotive factors of political language as described in section 2.147.

This is also implied by the statement that organizational context factors are the most potent shaper of team dynamics. The language of a team is said to be able to influence the organizational design just as the organization affects a team48.

The described susceptibility of an organization to a certain analytical and rational language was not explicitly mentioned in practitioners' journals. However, in the context of literature about language manipulation it was recognized that a scientific terminology is likely to have different effects on addressees' perception: especially words ending with "isms" and "ologies" were said to have sometimes confusing repercussions, but even though they might not be always completely understood, the alleged consequences are oftentimes accepted silently49.

Other environmental factors that are addressed in practitioners' journals confirm the significance of meetings as the "single most efficient mechanism for communicating between different hierarchical levels"50 in terms of the implied chance to demonstrate one's abilities, as also claimed in the introduction to Sillince's original model of rhetorical power51.

One aspect that is not included in the described model but which was given special attention in practitioners' journals is a rather process-oriented approach to group behavior. It describes group meetings as typically going through four stages and is based on classical behavioral science. In the first stage ("forming") participants orient themselves. In the second ("storming"), conflicts erupt between members, often over what the group is supposed to be doing. In the third ("norming") the group agrees on certain rules of behavior, or norms, to govern their deliberations. Finally, the assembly settles down to its assigned work ("performing")52.

Although these stages are regarded as highly relevant to understanding in which way an individual can improve his or her power position within a group, no detailed advice is given as to how each stage influences the appropriateness of different linguistic instruments, which might be an interesting topic for future research.

3.2. Skills

Given the many possible forms of linguistic usage that relate to the model level of rhetorical skills, it is not surprising that extensive literature can be found in this regard in practitioners' publications. Concerning the terminology, it is not a scientifically precise definition of power that underlies most of the articles. Instead, terms like "power", "influence", and also "leadership" are oftentimes used synonymously. However, most of it relates to the general findings and claims from section 2.4, even though the statements are more specific.

In a particularly interesting article, Fairholm talks about differences between power tactics, depending on whether a certain tactic is directed toward a superior, a peer, or a subordinate53. After examining a sample of employees from different hierarchical levels, he identified six main power tactics that are used by subordinates during formal and informal interaction with their superiors. All of them involve subtle activities, none rely on blatant or formal display of behavior. The most frequently tactic is to follow a proactive strategy which means that unilateral action is taken by the subordinate to secure desired results.

Charisma is considered the most effective power tactic, and a possible explanation for employees not using it very frequently is the suggestion that employees might be uncertain of their ability to be charismatic. With regard to the ethics of the different tactics, the majority of respondents regarded most of them as ethical, although using outside experts (involving experts who may be expected to recommend a certain course of action, so that a unilateral decision is not necessary) and rationalizing (consciously modifying facts when giving information to others) made them uncomfortable. When comparing initial power tactics with superiors as opposed to the ones used after facing resistance, subordinates were found to use initial tactics they perceive as ethical, whereas they resort to more questionable tactics after they encounter resistance.

As for the power tactics with peers, the respondents tended to be uncertain about whether the tactics they used were ethical. One tactic, practicing brinksmanship, was seen as both unethical and ineffective. However, it is often used, potentially because it is being considered a risk tactic that people use as last resort. Most peer-oriented tactics are used as reactions to resistance, only three are used as initial approaches to controlling others' behavior54.

Moreover, Sillince's theoretical findings with regard to the tool of "Topic Widening" could be verified: in order to gain power, respondents were found to make attempts to control the agenda, furthermore, they ally themselves with others, trade off resources, win their peers' indebtedness or admiration, or make use of surrogates.

More of Sillince's identified practices were found in other publications. Persons were perceived as powerful when they set the agenda, when they are more inclined to make statements and less inclined to ask questions, and when they offer solutions. Persons were regarded as rather powerless when they tended to encourage other speakers, ask numerous questions, avoid argument, offer empathy rather than solutions. All these practices are said to cause confidence in listeners55.

Especially for communication acts during meetings a wide variety of different suggestions are provided in order to obtain a maximum of individual power: some of the recommendations with regard to general communication parameters are a judicious choice of words, forceful delivery, careful listening, or emphatic body language56. Analyzing the effects of specific verbs, it is stated that long verbs are not necessarily strong verbs. Three sets of verbs that grow in power as they shrink in syllables are given as an example:

1. Initiate - introduce - begin - start
2. Accentuate - emphasize - highlight - stress
3. Communicate - dialogue - discuss - talk.57

Certain verbs are identified as so-called "power verbs", especially the ones not containing elements such as make, take, give, and have which are often coupled with nouns: the term "suggest" implies more power than "make a suggestion", or "consider" is said to be more effective than "take into consideration", and even silence can sometimes be an essential instrument to gain power as it can provide emphasis and tends to suggest importance and credibility58.

For conflict situations it is recommended to co-opt what the person one disagrees with has said by embracing part of his or her view enthusiastically and restating the rest, slightly altered to fit one's own view. It will then be up to the other person to challenge one's restatement if one's emendation is not to become the agreed-on version59. This advice with regard to the consequences of "challenges" reflects again one of the elements that Sillince used to describe rhetorical power, and in fact it is seen as having deteriorating effects on a speaker's power position.

Education and experience are also seen as sources for rhetorical skills in practitioners' literature60. Particularly concerning the aspect of experience, it is stressed that not only the knowledge of some verbal and vocal tricks is necessary, but instead a profound comprehension of a whole set of linguistic tools and its effects61.

3.3. Perlocutionary Response

Practitioners admit that one of the key tasks of power-holders is to absorb uncertainty. One means to achieve this is narratives that give meaning to situations. However, the interpretation of these narratives must match the intention, i.e. they have to be perceived accordingly by the addressees, as described above62.

The requirement of a "correct" perlocutionary response is mainly dealt with from the standpoint of potentially lacking homogeneity. Generally, practitioners' journals regard it as a problem of "listening", i.e. they encourage employees to first observe, read, and study the conversational patterns of an organization before making declaratory statements that could be otherwise misunderstood. It is recommended to figure out who gets listened to within a corporate culture or who gets noticed and why, especially when being a new member of the organization63.

This stage is also called "joining the natives in their ritual dance around the fire while making detailed mental notes on all that goes on"64 what would probably be described as being a "participant-observer" by social scientists.

In this context the phenomenon of "organizational personality" is mentioned which is said to be the result of accepting the values and goals of the organization as relevant to on-the-job decisions. In this process of identification, language is the primary vehicle, and the ways in which it is shaped and used by the individual often reveal his or her organizational personality, i.e. the extent to which a person has adopted the values of the organization65.

Apparently, communicational problems due to a lack of organizational homogeneity with regard to new members of the organizations is in fact a major issue, especially for managers: two-thirds of outsiders appointed president from publicly traded companies in 1993 left the company again within four years without being named CEO.

One of the mentioned reasons is that these managers did not read the culture of the place that they were joining. It certainly can be assumed that all of them were well qualified managers and that the factual decisions they made were not necessarily wrong. But not reading the culture of their environment deprived them of their power to correctly anticipate perlocutionary responses to what they communicated to their subordinates or their peers.

The longer a group has been together, the more difficult it is to homogenize with it66.

Practitioners' literature recommends to especially look at an organization's artifacts in order to understand the other group members: one should try to interpret what it says that people greet each other the way they do or what it says that meetings are run the way they are. One must identify potential taboo areas of discussion or topics so that one can stick with safe talk in order not to make any statements that can be misunderstood67. All these aspects that must be observed are said to tell something about the skills of the people who finally survive and have power in an environment68.

With regard to the aspect of ambiguity, also practitioner literature recognizes that ambiguity of utterances wraps the critical thinking process by distorting the definition of the world69. The 500 most commonly-used words in our language have more than 14,000 dictionary definitions70, and even every organization and every department speaks a language that means little or nothing to someone outside, even if this phenomenon does not relate to professional jargon. A lot of statements can have unlimited meanings.

However, people tend to expect other persons to understand what they say. Interpretations of words or phrases may vary from person to person, group to group, region to region, society to society. When people believe or assume that words are used for one and only one meaning, it causes situations in which they pretend to understand others but really do not. Misunderstanding may result in the relationship between parties becoming strained which is not a good basis for making somebody taking things for granted as described by the social- construction definition of power71.

4. Conclusion

It is estimated that about 70% to 80% percent of a person's waking day are spent with some form of communication activity. Breaking this activity down into its components, we are communicating as follows: listening 45%, speaking 30%, reading 16%, and writing 9%72. Given these numbers, it is not surprising that oral communication acts significantly shape the environment and therefore the organizational contexts in which individuals are interacting.

This importance is also reflected by the amount of research devoted to the phenomenon of language, which can be considered the characteristic of humans that most sharply marks them off from animals, one closely tied to the power of reasoning and social complexity73.

Especially in the current era which is increasingly dominated by the issues of information and communication, educated individuals are the most valuable assets an organization can have today. It is reasonable to assume that these individuals will tend to primarily use their linguistic skills in order to gain power within their organizations.

Therefore, the relationship between the use of language and the creation of power is a highly relevant topic for organizational science.

After reviewing scholarly literature related to the aspects of power and language, I reached the conclusion that the different findings can be combined to three levels that determine an individual's degree of political activity in his or her pursuit for power within an organization by the use of a certain language.

These levels are

- Characteristics of the environment
- The individual's skill level
- The addressee's perlocutionary response

The determining factors, i.e. the parameters that primarily affect each level, were described in section 2.4 and were illustrated by a graphical model. This model does not claim to contain all elements that are relevant for the cause-and-effect relationship between the occurrence of power and the use language. However, given the general concept that no model is intended to represent reality at full size, the discussed elements should cover the most relevant aspects as identified by scientific researchers.

This model was then tested for its validation by practitioners' literature. As a result, the majority of the aspects that were mentioned in academic works was also found in the practitioner sources.

The two major differences relate to the scholarly analysis of the environment which was not reflected by practitioner sources and to a process-oriented approach to group behavior that was emphasized by practitioner articles but not by scientific literature in this context.

These differences can probably be attributed to the different objectives of the sources. While academics tend to develop holistic explanations for power structures or communication acts, practitioners' articles rather focus on the utility of specific tactics. The purpose of scholarly literature can be interpreted as thorough examination whereas practitioners' journals try to provide some advice for everyday behavior in organizations.

In spite of these different objectives, there are however a lot of common results that can be found. It is generally agreed upon the ability of language to create power by creating reality. Furthermore, every individual within an organizational framework can employ the tool of language in order to increase his or her power. This mechanism works primarily because people in an organization need someone who gives meaning to their environment. If it is not a person high in positional status who fulfills this task, members of an organization will accept anybody else's construction of reality which might render this other person more powerful in the organizational context than it would be justified as measured by his or her hierarchical status.

Furthermore, the process of the acquisition of power apparently can be learned and trained. Just as there are no "born leaders", there are also no "born power-holders". As for the amount of power that is created by the usage of a certain language, it mainly depends upon experience and education how successful a person will be in his or her strive for power.

A positive result of these observations is the fact that the ability to provide others with a meaning of their activity or environment might make these addressees more satisfied with what they do and with who they are. A negative result of the fact that everybody can have this ability and thereby become powerful might be the fact that this power perhaps is not beneficial to the organization as a whole. This means that it might be not reasonable that a person plays an important role in an organization, for example due to lacking intellectual or professional skills.

However, this person might be able to compensate these lacks by strong linguistic skills and thus gain power over his or her colleagues which would not be desirable from the organization's point of view.

Moreover, the actual process of reality-creation need not necessarily lead to positive outcomes for the people who experience this process. One example which is quoted in literature74 was a supervisor who extensively made use of language in order to emphasize his power position. Language finally became nothing but a blaming ritual. Activities were observed that academics would describe as "degradation" whereas others might just call them "dumping" or "screwing". The boss was not able to use exchanges to generate power, in spite of other bases of power that were already available to him. In this situation, the reality construction resulted in humiliation, and it cannot be assumed that this status quo lead to highly motivated employees.

However, a positive example from another source in this context is a business school75. While at a certain time some other business schools shifted their general orientation towards the business community, and thus were able to raise significantly more funds, this specific school did not follow this trend, i.e. it did not shift its orientation away from the academic community as a reference group. In the first place, professors and employees felt inferior to the other (richer) schools. Then the executives of this specific business school were able to convince the other members of the organization that they were not inferior due to less financial funding, but instead they created successfully the image of "theory based professionalism" to describe the institution.

This term implies the historical emphasis on theory and scholarship, and suddenly the organization was perceived as a uniquely favorable intellectual environment which stimulated research and creative thought as opposed to the other schools that had allegedly devoted themselves to something as crass as money. In this example, it can be assumed that the creation of reality in fact contributed to the members' degree of satisfaction and pride in their institution.

As a final conclusion, I regard it as likely that oftentimes rhetorical power eventually results in position power, i.e. in a high hierarchical status. In these cases, a person's promotion within an organization is only desirable if this individual is also endowed with all other skills and qualifications that are necessary in order to meet the requirements that come along with such a position. Rhetorical power might be an important aspect an organization can benefit from as well as an individual. However, giving meaning to things is only one of many criteria that a good leader must fulfill.

5. Appendix

5.1. Rhetorical Power in Committee Meetings

Figure based on Sillince (2000)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

5.2. Most Common Power Tactics

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table from Fairholm (1985)

5.3. Power Tactics with Superiors

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table from Fairholm (1985)

5.4. Power Tactics with Peers

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table from Fairholm (1985)

5.5. Power Tactics with Subordinates

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table from Fairholm (1985)

6. Bibliography

Gary L. Ashenbrenner, Robert D. Snelling, "Comunicate with Power", Business Credit, v90n4, pp. 39-42, April 1988.

J. L. Austin, "How to do Things with Words", Harvard U. P., Cambridge, Mass., 1962.

P. L. Berger, T. Luckmann, ,,The social construction of knowledge: a treatise on the sociology of knowledge", Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1971.

Peter M. Blau, Exchange and Power in Social Life, Wiley, New York, 1964.

K. M. Carley, D. S. Kaufer, "Semantic Connectivity: An approach for analyzing symbols in semantic networks", Communication Theory, 3(3), pp. 183-213, 1993.

Kendra Carmichael, "A response: Characterizations, methodologies, and the power of language", Journal of Business Communication, v35n1, pp. 138-143, January 1998.

Stewart R. Clegg, "The Language of Power and the Power of Language", Organization Studies, v8n1, pp. 61-70, 1987.

Geoffrey Colvin, "Revenge of the nerds", Fortune, v137 n4, pp. 223-224, March 2, 1998.

Malcolm Coulthard, "An Introduction to Discourse Analysis", Longman, London, 1977.

Robert Dahl, "The concept of power", Behavioral Science, pp. 202-203, July 1957.

Jeffrey P. Davidson, "Boosting Your Career with Politics", Management World, v17n5, pp. 11-13, September / October 1988.

Economist, "Can You Say what You want?", author anonymous, v339n7965, pp. 79-80, May 11, 1996.

Edelman, Murray, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964.

Richard Emerson, "Power-dependence relations", American Sociological Review 27, pp. 31- 41, 1962.

James Poon Teng Fatt, "Affecting the Senses", Communication World, v14n8, pp. 15-17, August / September 1997.

L. Festinger, ,,A theory of social comparison processes", Human Relations, 7, pp. 117-140, 1954.

Fortune, "Hit the ground running -- or else", author anonymous, 422 141, no. 5, p. 422, March 6, 2000.

Freeman and Hannan, "Growth and Decline Processes in Organizations", American Sociological Review, 40, pp. 215-228, 1975.

J. R. P. French, B. Raven, "The bases of socialpower", Group Dynamics, New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Charles Handy, "The new language of business", Director, v52n7, pp. 50-54, February 1999.

Cynthia Hardy, "The Nature of Unobtrusive Power", Journal of Management Studies, 22, pp. 384-399, July 1985.

John M. Ivancevich, Michael T. Matteson, Organizational Behavior and Mangement, McGraw-Hill, 6th edition, 2002.

Heather Johnson, "Wax, Power, and Fuzz", Training, 27 38, no. 10, p. 27, October 2001.

S. M. Katz, "A newcomer gains power: an analysis of the role of rhetorical expertise", Journal of Business Communication, 15, 4, pp. 419-424, 1998.

Walter Kiechel III., "How to Take Part in a Meeting", Fortune, v113n11, pp. 177.180, May 26, 1986.

Fred A. Kramer, "Policy Analysis as Ideology", Public Administration Review, v35 n5, pp. 509-517, September / October 1975.

S. Lukes, Power: A Radical View, London: MacMillan, 1974.

Robin Lakoff, "Language in Context", Language, 48, pp. 553-581, 1972.

Sarah McGinty, "How you speak shows where you rank", Fortune, v137n2, p. 156, February 2, 1998.

Michael Moch, Anne S. Huff, ,,Power Enactment through Language and Ritual", Journal of Business Research 11, pp. 293-315, 1983.

David A. Morand, "Language and Power: an empirical analysis of linguistic strategies used in superior-subordinate communication", Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21, pp. 235-248, 2000.

C.W. Morris, "Signs, language, and behavior", New York: Prentice Hall, 1949.

William G. Ouchi, "Markets, Bureaucracies, and Clans", Administrative Science Quarterly, v25n1, pp.129-141, March 1980.

L. Pondy, "Leadership is a language game", in M. McCall & M. Lombardo (Eds.), 1978.

Amy E. Randel, "Team Talk: The Power of Language in Team Dynamics", International Journal of Organizational Analysis, v5n4, pp. 408-410, October 1997.

Kathryn C. Rentz, Mary Beth Debs, "Language and Corporate Values: Teaching Ethics in Business Writing Courses", Journal of Business Communication, v24n3, pp. 37-48, Summer 1987.

Gerald R. Salancik, Jeffrey Pfeffer, "A social information processing approach to job attitudes and task design", Administrative Science Quarterly, v23n2, pp. 224-253, June 1978.

S. Senecah, M. Netzley, "What is the case for an SCA environmental commission?", Spectra, 32(ii), November 1996.

John A. A. Sillince, "Rhetorical power, accountability and conflict in committees: an argumentation approach", Journal of Management Studies, pp. 1125-1156, December 2000.

Samuel Andrew Stouffer, "A study of attitudes", San Francisco, Calif. : W.H. Freeman and Co., 1949.

William Umiker, "How to Generate Power in Meetings", Health Care Supervisor, v9n1, pp. 33-38, September 1990.

Jerry Useem, "What it takes", Fortune, 126-132 144, no. 9, p. 126-132, November 12, 2001.

M. Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Glencoe, IL.: Free Press, 1947.

Alden Wood, "A powwow on power language", Communication World, v13n4, p. 44, April 1996.

Michele Zak, "The deep structure of the field", Journal of Business Communication, v33n4, pp. 503-511, October 1996.


1 See Katz (1998)

2 See Ivancevich, Matteson (2002)

3 See Emerson (1962), Dahl (1957)

4 See Blau (1994)

5 See Clegg (1987)

6 See Moch (1983)

7 See Pfeffer (1981)

8 See Berger, Luckmann (1971)

9 See Moch (1983)

10 See Senecah and Netzley (1996)

11 See Carmichael (1998)

12 See Weber (1947)

13 See Lukes (1974) and Hardy (1985)

14 See Edelmann (1964)

15 See Carley and Kaufer (1993)

16 See Zak (1996)

17 See Sherblom, Reinsch, and Beswick (1995)

18 See Pondy (1978)

19 See Sillince (2000)

20 See Sillince (2000)

21 See Ouchi (1980)

22 See Morand (2000)

23 See Stouffer (1949)

24 See Festinger (1954)

25 See Pfeffer (1981)

26 See Salancik and Pfeffer (1978)

27 See Pfeffer (1981)

28 See Peffer (1983)

29 See Kramer (1975)

30 See Freeman and Hannan (1975)

31 See Peffer (1983)

32 See Sillince (2000)

33 See Peffer (1983)

34 See Lakoff (1972)

35 See Austin (1962) and Coulthard (1977)

36 See Moch (1983)

37 See Moch (1983)

38 The examples are based on the author's own perception and not on any existing academic literature

39 See Fairholm (1985)

40 See Colvin (1998)

41 See Peffer (1983)

42 See Handy (1999)

43 See Fatt (1997)

44 See Rentz (1987)

45 See Fatt (1997)

46 See Handy (1999)

47 See Fairholm (1985)

48 See Randel (1997)

49 See Fatt (1997)

50 See Kiechel (1986)

51 see Sillince (2000)

52 See Kiechel (1986)

53 See Fairholm (1985)

54 A more detailed description of the analyzed tactics as well as the results with regard to the different tactics used can be found in the appendix 5.2 to 5.5

55 See McGinty (1998)

56 See Umiker (1990)

57 See Wood (1996)

58 See Johnson (2001)

59 See Kiechel (1986)

60 See Davidson (1988)

61 See Ashenbrenner (1988)

62 See Useem (2001)

63 See McGinty (1998)

64 See Kiechel (1986)

65 See Rentz (1987)

66 See Davidson (1988)

67 See Davidson (1988)

68 See Fortune (March 6, 2000)

69 See Fatt (1997)

70 See Ashenbrenner (1988)

71 See Ashenbrenner (1988)

72 See Ashenbrenner (1988)

73 See Economist (1996)

74 See Moch (1983)

75 See Pfeffer (1983)

30 of 30 pages


Conditions for Employees` Pursuit of Power by the Use of Language
Eastern Illinois University
Organizational Behavior
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ISBN (eBook)
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After reviewing scholarly literature related to the aspects of power and language, the different findings were combined to a three layer model. Three levels of conditions were identified that determine the degree to which individuals, independent from their position power, i.e. especially subordinates, are likely to try and to succeed in gaining power within an organization by the use of language. The levels are 'characteristics of the environment', 'the individual's skill level' and 'the addressee's perlocutionary response'. The determining factors, i.e. the parameters that primarily affect each level, are being described and illustrated by a graphical model. This model is then tested for its validation by practitioners' literature. As a result, the majority of the aspects that are mentioned in academic works are also found in the practitioner sources.
Conditions, Employees`, Pursuit, Power, Language, Organizational, Behavior
Quote paper
Marc Nettesheim (Author), 2002, Conditions for Employees` Pursuit of Power by the Use of Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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