organization power structureThe article discusses three types of power structures, namely, Rational Power Structure, Democratic Power Structure and Laissez-allar power structure. It is argued that all three structures develop due to differences in formalization, informal grouping, conventions and organizational culture.


It is important to know as to why the rational power structure has been emphasized by rational theorists. A major purpose of having rational power structure is to delegate power so that there must be someone who can be accountable in case things go wrong. Besides, it is considered that this delegation will make the participant more responsible. In this power structure, the authority is top-down as we observe in the rational/bureaucratic model. There are formal communication channels which are usually vertical. The upward power is generally seen as disruptive and non-legitimate. Upward power is defined as “attempts by subordinates to influence their superiors”.

The first question is whether it is possible to have a rational structure in the organization as given by rational theorists? If we study the rational thought it is unclear if this model is given for the lower level or for the whole organization. The rational theorists realize that the strategic apex cannot be controlled like lower level participants. However, we can take it for granted for our purpose that the model includes all the levels.

When we study the thoughts of rational theorists about organizational power, it seems that they only consider the relationship between superordinate and subordinate in the organization. They did not realize that more relationships exist in the organization apart from the above mentioned within the rational structure. As I mentioned earlier, all organizations strive to be rational but that is more applicable to a lower level than the upper.

Then, they have not realized the fact that there are different organizations in the shape of size & position. This size & position of the organization change the internal structure of the organization. Even in those organizations where we find sole proprietorship, ­the entrepreneur cannot have a very defined hierarchical rela­tions­hip with those who are very near to the strategic apex. Miller’s case study of Stevens shows that Alex Hez­bog’s top level subordinates left him because he was not interested in delegating the power in the proper manner [1]. We should note that Hezbog was sitting at the top of the hierarchy, and, according to rational thought he was carrying the full authority to interfere in the working of his subordinates.

If we go after the rational thoughts then his managers should have not been annoyed with his behavior­. The case of Stevens is clear that Hezbog left two strategies to its participants which were exit or loyalty. Those who were experienced and creative in the organization left the organization or were discharged. So, we can say that the rational power structure does not, in reality, exist. It is said that attracting people to a system and holding them in it may not lead to a high level of productivity [2]. We can extract from this assertion that we can hold people for the shorter period in the so called rational system but not for the longer period.

If we insist that it is possible to introduce the rational power of structure than we have to see the consequences. If we study deeply we will come to conclusion that rational structure is near to the autocratic structure which suppresses voice strategy’. Therefore, from here on the word “rational structure” will be used as autocratic structure. This can be profitable in the short run but in the long run it can be devastating for the organization. In fact, all structures allocate some power to certain posts which are exclusive to the posts but if these rational allocations of power are used excessively against the will of participants then it will bring negative results. I have mentioned an example from the private sector but to support my argument I would like to bring an example from the public sector.

Ex-President of Pakistan Zia extended his tenure number of times as Chief-of-Army staff by using his presi­dential power. We do not have concrete evidence but there were rumors in the media that this extension was not adhered to by the other top military men. According to the `Guard­ian’ 1992 news the crash of plane in which Zia died, was not due to technical reasons. Instead, it was pre-planned and the Assistant Chief-of Army-Staff was aware of it. This example is quoted to show that if rational power is used against the wishes of the participants then they find other means to handle those rational powers.

When a system stresses too much on the rationality (autocracy) of power structure then participants get afraid of opening up themselves which leads to conspiracy. I am less hesitant to say that the USSR’s power system was based on rational thoughts. We have seen the results of such rationality.

In fact, the rational structure tries to have a very formal conditioning, which neither works properly nor is good for the organization due to a number of reasons. First, they are strategic decision makers. If we restrict them in a very formalized behavior then they feel unable to take action in unusual circumstances. Second, they have some exceptional experience in the shape of practical or academical or both, so, their availability is scarce in the labor market. Thus, they are more egoistic compared to the lower level. Third, conditioning is very much related to organizational UMO which I shall discuss in the next chapter. Before, I shall conclude my discussion of rational structure it is appropriate to ask “is it true that the rational power structure is always negative?”

As a matter of fact, the rational power structure is good for the short run when an organization is lacking its established patterns. We see that the early & middle period of communism brought fruitful results for USSR. A strong rational power structure can be good for business organization as leadership is extra important in the early phases. Because participants look for guidance, they accept the autocratic power to develop the organization. The problem enters when this style is established strongly or considered as a taken for granted assumption in the organization by the leader(s). However, The discussion reveals three following points:

1) The strategic apex cannot be conditioned in the same way as organization conditions the behavior of the lower level. Practi­cally, the rational model is appli­cable to the lower level and not vice versa.
2) If organization tries, extra-ordinarily, to formalize the strategic apex it would have negative effects on the organization.
3) The strategic apex is conditioned through conventions and not only by formalized rules.


The paradigm of democratic thought is to share responsibility and blame. The concept of democracy, here, is slightly changed from the traditional one. In fact, R. Michal portrays a better picture of the organizational power structure at upper level when he says, where there is organiz­ation there is oligarchy. It means a group of people share the strategic power and this group of people composed the strategic apex of the organization. How participants interact in oligarchies can be explained in the terms of collegial/consensus model as given by Greiner & Schein.

According to the model, rules, policies and procedures are relaxed in order to enhance interaction and participation in decision making. The need for direction & control is replaced by team work in the spirit of “all for one, one for all”. Individual contributions are highly valued, thus increasing collaboration and integration. The distribution of authority is assumed to lead to better decision making and fuller commitment to decision(s). Upward power is seen as legitimate and downward power is barely tolerated. Sideways power is not considered essential because consensus and collaboration are the accepted norms [3]. The democratic structure can be divided into two forms: COLLECTIVE OLIGARCHY and CHARISMATIC OLI­GARCHY. Both forms fall in and deviates from the men­tioned power model.

When we talk about the collective oligarchy it is referred to as the style where participants rely, more or less, on consensus and play within the broadly defined rules­. Let us take the example of the military organization which is considered a highly formalized and bureaucratic organization. Where it is considered that only “yes man” kind of participants can survive in it. Even in such a formalized structure we find a different kind of behavior pattern at the strategic apex. I am not convinced with Mintz­berg [4] figure when he shows that the chief of army staff is the man who is sitting alone at the strategic apex of the USA military. Moreover, I do not agree that upward power in such a structure is disruptive and non-legitimate.

For example, if we study the strategic apex of Pakistan’s army we cannot say that it consists of only chief-of-army staff. Those generals who are corp commanders they are also part of the strate­gic apex. It is evident by history whenever a chief of the army staff made a coup against the civilian government, he took the consent of generals, specifi­cally Corp Commanders. If Corp Commanders had opposed those coups then chief of army staff could not dare to change the civil government by force. It would be a big chaos if arbitrary power is used. So, this example also shows that upward power is acceptable at the strategic apex even in those organizations whose struc­ture is con­sidered very rational from other theor­ists’ points of view. However, we can summarize the characteristics of collec­tive oli­garchy as followed:

(1)The nature of the individual task is seen separately according to the total situation of the concern. For example, When armed forces make a coup it is usually considered important under the circumstance by the strategic members and they act according the present consideration. We have evidence like the Cuban Missile crisis when President Kennedy wanted consensus among the strategic participants of the decision in order to take a specific course of action[5].

(2) Communication between different ranks resembles consultation rather than command. According to Mintzberg’s observation, at the strategic apex, communication patterns and the power real township were simply fluid to formalize, so the structure has to evolve naturally and to shift continually [6].

(3) Commitment to the organizational task is apparently highly valued. It is not necessary that it is valued because it is appreciated from the heart by the par­tici­pants but it is accepted due to some internal & external pres­sure. Participants do not want to disrupt the system because disruption carries more disadvan­tages.

(4) This type relies more on the norm “play within the established rules and the established conventions, then the “all for one, one for all”. This kind of convention brings a lot of political games to the system but participants remain loyal to the organization. The participants very seldom open up their differences to those who are outside of the organization.

(5) In this form, sideways powers can be necessary or unnecessary depending on the situation. The sideways powers are unnecessary if there is genuine consensus. If consensus is weak then sideways power is necess­ary.

When it is referred to charis­matic oligarchy it means a group have a similar ideology. The partici­pants follow the leader because they have a strong believe on the lea­dership or on the ideology. So they also have consen­sus but that is not because organizational policy is rational as defined by classical rational theorists rather it is because of trust on the qual­ities of leader­ship or/and trust in the quality of the ideol­ogy. In a charis­matic oligarchy, leaders manipulate the ideol­ogy so that people will show consensus with them.

(1) The nature of the task and action is seen through the eyes of the charismatic leader or it is seen in the ideology.
(2) The commitment is attached to the organization because of its ideology or/and charismatic influence of the leader. In other words we can say that par­ticipants have a consensus because they value the specific ideol­ogy and/or they have a strong belief in the leader.
(3) This is the basic slogan of charismatic oligarchy “all for one, one for all”. Even Hitler’s oli­garchy was not immune from it.
(4) The sideways powers are unnecessary because charis­matic belief is strong in the system.

If we study both the forms, one way or the other, they rely on the policy of consensus. So, power structure is divided horizontally but with a meeting point as it is shown in the following figure.

The structure is dominated by voice & loyalty actions. The paradigm behind democratic structure is that voice action should be allowed in order to develop the organization. The violent voice action is considered illegit­imate in this struc­ture because participants find alternatives & opportunities to bring forth their point of view. If voice action does not get the proper attention, which is, though against the ideology of democ­racy, then participants use the exit strategy. If partici­pants have a formal conditioning or internal­ized condi­tioning it depends how voice action is channelled in the organ­ization. But this kind of structure has more chances to have internal­ized condi­tioning in its partici­pants. I would like to remind my reader that inter­nalized conditioning of a democratic struc­ture can be highly productive for the organiz­ation where it is found but it can be a curse for the organiz­ation or groups which are outside of the given organization.


In fact, when I say laissez-allar power structure, the assigned name itself shows that there would be ambiguity in the power structure. This structure lacks clear power structure. No one takes the respon­sibility and the blame when things go wrong. The Laissez-allar structure gives us insight of abnormal way of distributing power.

The charac­teristics of the pluralistic/political model, as dis­cussed by Greiner and Schein, are near to the structure which is named as Laissez-allar. The interaction in pluralistic/political model is seen by the authors as normal whereas I see it as the path which to leads laissez-allar power structure.

Greiner and Schein say “we agree with Cyret & March and Baldridge & Pfeffer, who advance the pluralistic/political model as a more accurate representation of how organizations and managers really func­tions. Following are the major points of the model:

1. Each party pursues its own goal(s). They say it is possible that these goals are pursued on selfish grounds, but often for well intended reasons based on the personal view of what is best for the organiz­ation as whole.
2. Conflict is viewed as a normal part of the game.
3. Coalitions are made to solve the problem(s). The basic expecta­tions of the coalition are that those with simi­lar interests will band together to influence the direc­tion of the organiz­ation.
4. Power becomes the intervening variable.
5. Power and political behavior are dependent on a wide range of people outside the formal author­ity chain to get decisions made & work accom­plished, which means that sideways power plays important role.
6. Groups across the organization must compete for scarce resources.
7. They say that a compromise must be reached if the organization is to continue to function.

The problem with this model is that if the characteristics of the models are not channelled in a proper way then we find anarchy in the system. I am sorry to say that this model does not represent the accurate picture of how managers inter­act in the organization. Although, some of the characteristics of this model we find in the demo­cratic model, too. But there is a big difference between two structures mostly dependent on the quality. For example, conflicts are found in all structures but how they are solved depends on the type of struc­ture.

The author has experi­enced such functioning in a student organiz­ation when it has been in the process of reor­ganization. At least two of the participants had clear diver­gent views of organizational goals. They differed clearly on the matters which should have been discussed, how they should have been discussed and how organizational resources should have been used. The interac­tion was near to pluralistic/ political model and if that situation would remain longer it would have a very devastating effect on the organization. I have also experienced the same function in a business organization when partici­pants could not resolve their conflicts and it was eradicated from the environment.

The promoters of the model accept in the last characteristic that a compromise must be reached if the organiz­ation is to continue to function. In a way we can say that if there is a compromise then it is demo­cratic. There is another question which demands our attention, shall we say that if parties are able to negotiate compro­mise then it is demo­cratic? In fact, it is not a compromise, rather, it is the nature of the compromise declares an organiz­ation demo­cratic or laissez-allar. If the two partici­pants were making compromises for the short term due to special reasons, then there are probabilities that compro­mises could be blown up if those specific reasons were not present.

It is not my intention to say that the characteristics of the pluralistic model are not present in the organization. Instead, I am emphasizing that if these characteristics are not chan­nelled then organizational power structure will be laissez-allar. A power structure can be unchannelled for the time being but it must be changed if an organization wishes to survive.

A casual investigation of an organization may show that the organi­zation has a quite rational (autocratic) or demo­cratic power structure. But it is possible that it will be a distant picture of both kinds. As I mentioned that the laissez-allar power struc­ture differs on many counts with the rational (autocratic) and democratic struc­ture and to under­stand such kind of structure we need psychoanaly­sis of the organ­ization. It is such a structure which has neither formal conditioning nor internalized condi­tioning. There is a vicious circle of power where it is hard to know who is having how much power

There is another important question which segment conditions the CMO. In fact, it is little to discuss that the top level in the organization pro­vides the leadership. Someone can raise the question that when this paper is written for the top management and it is the manage­ment who provides leadership for the whole organization so why we should talk, separately, about the leadership. The studies of groups/organizations show that, formally or infor­mal­ly, the few who have a greater say in the system are the ones who lead the group, so it is essen­tial to say a few words about their role. The leaders in any organiz­ation play a special role in the develop­ment of the organiz­ation whether it is public or pri­vate. When an organiz­ation comes into exist­ence, participants look towards a leader for guidance. Why do we need a leader in the organization? We can find the answer in the experiments done by Miller & Dollor.

In one experi­ment, one group of rats were rewarded for going in the same direction in a maze as the leaders. Another group of rats going in the opposite direc­tion were not rewarded. We must note that leaders were trained to make use of a cue for finding food, while other rats were not trained. The ordinary members of the same group of rats were put in another situ­ation and they continued to imitate the behaviour of the leader[7].

In fact, if human beings trust leaders it is because they believe in the leaders. They feel that leaders have solutions to problems and they can provide salvation. So, what type of structure will develop depends on the leaders of the organiz­ation. All the structures are available to an organiz­ation and which of the structures will dominate and what type of condi­tioning takes place it de­pends how reinforcement is given. The organiz­ation de­mands internalized conditio­ning from the upper level because they are the source of conditio­ning of organizational working.

All structures have their own implications. The above mentioned discussion shows that three structures have different basises. The rational structure connotates the type which follows rule orientation and neglects human beings. The essence of the democratic structure is that it should be oriented towards system + human beings. In laissez-allar structure, participants are more self-interest oriented. If we study Etizoni’s involvement typology we can have an idea of implications as they can be associated with the above mentioned power structures. When we assign a structure in a particular typology we have to see how it has been/will be effecting the participants and the whole system in the long run.

Nadeem Yousaf

24 April 2011

  1. Miller D. (1987): The Neurotic Organizations
  2. DEAUX, K. & L.S. WRIGHTSMAN (1984): Social Psychology of Organization (p.347)
  3. Greiner, L.E & V.E.Schein (1988): Power & Organization Development: Mobilizing Power to implement Change
  4. Mintzberg H (1979): The Structuring Organization
  5. Cuban Missili Crisis
  6. Pervin L.A (1984): Personality

Types of Power Structures