Dominant Coalitions: The Power to Fail (or Succeed)

This is a revision of a column was first published by Inside Indiana Business nearly six years ago. Given our ongoing hangover from the Great Recession, it seems this continues to be relevant. — JH

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Sometimes the sources of power in an organization aren’t so obvious.

There is something heady and a bit intoxicating for those involved with a corporation’s executive management team. And, yet there’s also a great deal that is extremely difficult, especially for those struggling from the after shocks of the Great Recession.

With all the isolation, stress and headaches, why is there no shortage of individuals with executive management career ambitions? The answer is not pay. Even smaller organizations with less than premium executive pay find many individuals eager for a slot on a senior management team.

Perhaps one answer is power. A 1979 Harvard Business Review article identified two forms of power:

1. Access to resources, information, and support.

2. The ability to get cooperation in doing what is necessary.

There certainly is nothing wrong with possessing or wanting to possess power. It often takes power to accomplish great things in business or humanitarian causes. Generals without power cannot win battles. And humanitarian causes without power can achieve little for society.

But, with power comes the threat of dysfunctional behavior … especially if possessing the power becomes more important that using it to accomplish great things.

Dysfunctional executive management teams – dominant coalitions – provide one explanation as to why one organization may thrive, while another with similar resources and market situations seems to be crisis laden.

In addition, there is no guarantee that all members of an executive management team can be counted among the often-shadowy dominant coalition. When resources become scarce, powerful coalitions may allocate resources to maintain the relative positions of those within the coalition. This may even create warfare within an executive management team among those who are truly within the inner circle of power, and those being pushed to powerless positions with large job titles.

For an outside consultant, awareness of the dominant coalition is an essential component to the development of effective strategies and action plans. An incredible strategic plan, officially endorsed at the highest levels, has little chance of success if a shadowy dominant coalition – the real power brokers in an organization – is not involved in the planning effort and fully behind the finished product.

Often the consultant is called in because an organization has failed to thrive while similar organizations with similar resource challenges have enjoyed consistent success. While there may be a number of explanations for this failure, identifying the dominant coalition and its relationship within an organization is essential.

However, addressing dysfunctions within a dominant coalition can be among the most risky for a consultant. As with any performance review, it is not enough to generally identify a perceived problem. Specific examples must be provided, but done so in a manner that allows members of the coalition to save face. Often this means allowing coalition members a significant role in developing process-oriented solutions, while not forcing a “whose fault is it” discussion of the problems.

Ultimately, dysfunctional dominant coalitions are like bad marriages. Counseling may help if all parties are committed to a solution. But there are no guarantees.

To review a case study on this issue, presented to the Public Relations Society of America Educator’s Academy in 2003, see The Impact of Public Relations Roles and Dominant Coalitions on Crisis Communications.

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