Power and Ethics

  • Elizabeth S. OvermanEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2369-1


Organizational potency and conscience; Puissance and integrity; Prepollence and fairness

Power is the ability to get things done. Ideally this occurs through the constructive application of creativity and cooperation. The sources or bases of power in organizations, as delineated by French and Raven, can be described as legitimacy, expertise, referent power, coercive power, and reward power. Legitimate or positional power is held by people who “earned” the position and are, therefore, the legitimate heads of an organizations, managers of agencies, or professors. Expertise can make one seem to be indispensable to an organization because “experts” solve problems and, hence, become influential and are often highly promotable. Referent power derives from either the cultivation of interpersonal relationships usually based on charisma within an organization or by the perception of association with the organizations top management. Coercive power rests on the policing ability to fire, reprimand, punish, threaten, or sanction others. Reward power is a two-edged sword. The power to allocate resources, or reward power, includes the provision of salary increments, positive appraisals, and promotions. If used well, it is a great motivating tool. But, if there is favoritism or the perception of favoritism, reward power greatly demoralizes employees and diminishes their output.

Morgan argues that “power” in organizations is available to all who have the ability to cultivate it. His categories are formal authority; control of scarce resources; use of organizational structure, rules, and regulations; control of decision processes; control of knowledge and information; control of boundaries; ability to cope with uncertainty; control of technology; interpersonal alliances, networks, and control of the “informal organization”; control of counter organizations; symbolism and the management of meaning; gender and management of gender relations; structural factors that define the stage of action; and self-cultivation or “the power one already has.”

Formal authority rests on the basic employment transaction and belief that people who are paid to do a job must do whatever the payee demands. Control of resources, especially if they are diminishing, can lead to internal turmoil and can embellish existing centers of power. Organizations use structures, rules, and regulations as administered by power brokers or managers through a variety of structures including departments and teams. From Morgan’s perspective, the people who do know the rules and regulations in detail can become sources of power within the organization. Power can also aggregate around those who overstate rules or understate their meaning. Is this an abuse of power? Who controls the process of making decision in an organization and how are decisions made can be power central in an organization. Work can be selected and resources can be allocated by the decisions decided by individuals or groups of people. The management of this process, requiring, for example, consensus or managerial sign-off may embellish the power of some while it limits the power of others to make decisions. Those who chair meetings or are in charge of keeping the minutes may have notable powers to control decision-making processes and the decision themselves.

Is knowledge power or does power reside in the gathering of facts and their dissemination? The power of experts as holders of highly specialized knowledge is eroding as information technologies democratize or displace such power aggregators. Instructions for writing wills, for example, are available online for every state in the union. Enterprising individuals can write their own will and not hire an attorney to do so.

Boundary control, another form of power, can take multiple forms. This may be the job of appointment secretaries and security guards who decide, each in separate spheres, who may enter and under what circumstances. Morgan suggests that personal resilience or the ability to cope with uncertainty allows individuals in organizations to tackle assignments others avoid or fear because they are, in some way, harmful. Taking on what others fear, dread, or avoid may be a route to promotion and add to one’s power within the organization.

Making sophisticated information technologies cheap enough to be widely available has created new organizational power centers. Morgan points out that former Information Technology managers are now “CIOs” or Chief Information Officers who control access to the latest, fastest computers and the new software. Sometimes having the latest technology can be a status symbol adding to the holder’s “social power” and reputation.

Power can inferred through the development of interpersonal alliances and networks in control of “informal organization.” People will usually help their friends and those who have helped us in the past. Those who build social networks in organizations by bringing associates together informally can gain a significant amount of power. But informal and formal organizations can sometimes become counter-organizations. In public organizations, like institutions of higher education for example, faculty counter-organizations have formed to fight the corporatization of universities which robs the professoriate of their responsibilities for shared governance.

Management of symbols and their meaning is a powerful tool for change and influence in organizations. In most organizations there are power struggles between the genders. Women are still, in the aggregate, losing. But demographics favor women who are filling the pipelines to power at the lower levels in such numbers that the possibility of major breakthrough in the upper echelons of power appear to be on the horizon. Those who shape the purpose, vision, mission, and strategies of organizations exhibit the power for societal leadership that moves organizations into the future. Without this organizations would wither in the face of societal change.

However, the term “power” is freighted, for good reason, with a host of negative consequences. Entire dramas going back to the ancient Greeks, revolve around example after example of the abuse of power. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon suffered from arrogance and thoughtlessness. Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex committed patricide causing his wife and mother to abandon him. And, Euripides’s Medea deserted the family and committed homicide. Unfortunately, the dramas have, more often than not, fallen short of actual events which are so instilled as to become iconic. Examples range from the Teapot Dome Scandal’s no bid contracts and the political espionage and illegal surveillance of Watergate to the NSA’s warrantless surveillance programs. This is just in the public sector. A true accounting of the abuse of power in the for-profit and nonprofit world speak volumes. Most immediately, the fraud that lead to the bankruptcy of Enron in 2001 and WorldCom in 2002 were matched in 2015 when it was found that Volkswagen deliberately engineered misleading vehicle emission calibrations and the FBI indicted world soccer’s FIFA officials for racketeering, fraud, and other offenses. The same year Toshiba overstated its earnings by $7 billion, more than four times the actual earnings, over a 2 year period. The price gouging drug company, Valent, created a specialty pharmacy company, Philidor, to artificially inflate sales. Meanwhile, Turing jacked up the price of a drug that treated HIV patients by 5,000 % from $13.50 to $750 per pill. In 2016, Mylan began selling emergency allergy life saving EpiPens for $600 for two, up from $58 per pen in 2007. The nonprofit sector has also experienced its share of plundering and filching. The United Way case rocked the 1990s when president William Aramony was convicted of stealing $600,000. Risking reputations all too many nonprofits continue to be undermined by CEO malfeasance and/or board neglect.

Three sectors, public, nonprofit, and for-profit, are suffused with examples of the abuse of power. It is not surprising that citizens are skeptical and have been for centuries. For example, the founders, according to Frederickson, crafted the constitution of the United States, to ensure the absence of tyranny, viscerally still considered a negative in the popular imagination, with a system of shared power and checks and balances. Abuse of power is a problem for all organizations. Although examples of malediction are rife in all sectors, public institutions are particularly reviled if evidence of debauchment or the perception of wrong doing exists, whether or not it is linked to performance. This may be because public institutions reflect cherished values key to the broader societal image that both fires and fuses citizen identity. Citizens may not be surprised, but they may also feel emotionally blighted and find relief in cynicism, not voting, and undue resentment over taxation, etc. Political instability may ensure.

Having said that, the display of power as discretionary authority by public officials is generally accepted, even if potentially controversial because power, used correctly, serves the common good. The bridge between the abuse of power and right conduct is ethics. By all accounts, ethics reside, first, in the person but not entirely because individuals can be resocialized by organizations embracing ethical policies, practices, and procedures. Individuals, however, comprise the human capital of public organizations and their ethical norms and those of society as a whole impact the organization. Each person is a composite of beliefs and perceptions about right and wrong that may originate intuitively as does natural law, or come from religious imprecations, or what may have been learned from the study of philosophy. The individuals ethical persona can be foundational and either align or conflict with the organization’s values.

Whether or not organizations abide by or disregard ethical injunctions depends on the expectation of the broader society. Ethical organizations enhance the legitimacy of power structures and create trust that operates as glue between an organization or government and the citizenry.

To paraphrase Koven, good societies, good governments, good organizations, and good individuals are founded on ethical considerations. Ethical institutions are foundational and framing. Ethics outline the means to achieve socially derived ends. They are the boundaries, precursors, preconditions, and preliminary frameworks undergirding the exercise of behavior and the values activated when designing and implementing public policy.

Although nonprofits are fighting it, there have been calls for the US Congress to pass a Sarbanes-Oxley like regulatory act for nonprofits. The 2003 United Nations Convention Against Corruption calls for the institution of codes for the public and private sectors. The UN calls for preventive measures and safeguards to the abuse of power that promote efficiency, transparency, and accountability. Developing codes of conduct with requirements for financial and other disclosures backed up with disciplinary means could raise the standards of conduct in the public services.

Ethical codes are institutional and symbolic. Within the organization they articulate boundaries of behavior and the expectations. Markers should define what is prohibitory and how to behave such as showing impartiality to all citizens. As symbols, ethical codes reflect how public institutions see themselves and how they want to be seen by others. Public servants in democracies have a special professional standing in their communities and responsibilities flow from that. Ethical codes require understanding by deploying cognitive or reasoning abilities and the ability to appeal to the emotions of guilt, shame, conscience, and pride in profession.

Ethical public managers direct power for the benefit of the common good even though the specific missions of agencies are various. It is up to mangers to work any ethical ambiguities into specific directives, prescriptions, and proscriptions of behavior within the boundaries of the organization’s mission. In the public, specific responsibilities and mandates guide an organization’s goals. Cultures and formal and informal behaviors develop to support the mission and shape the way standard operating procedures are carried out. Ethics are consciously inserted into all processes and procedures and become part of program review, assessment, and evaluation. Actions that enhance public support generally foster the mission as they flow from the organizational culture and reaffirm public perceptions of behavior. Such action either bolsters public support and therefore the legitimacy of the organization and, in the public sector, the government. Or, the action may erode public support.

Power used ambiguously by public organizations may create difficulty for the citizenry. Problems in the modern world do not come in either/or, black/white, yin/yang polarities. Ethical codes fall short of dealing with the problems of “dirty hands” or doing bad to achieve good results. Ethical codes in the future need to ask, what George Frederickson has asked of public administrative professionals to do: who benefits and why? That is the ultimate power question.


  1. French JPR Jr, Raven B (1960) The bases of social power. In: Cartwright D, Zanders A (eds) Group dynamics. Harper and Row, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Koven S (2015) Public sector ethics. Taylor and Francis, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Morgan G (1986) Images of organizations. Sage, Thousand OaksGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Central OklahomaEdmondUSA