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Power and Authority in the Workplace

A young child looking up at its parents perceives a sense of security, driven by the impression that the parents possess the strength, knowledge and resources to tackle and address any adversity that may arise.

Sigmund Freud publishing Die Traumdeutung (or The Interpretation of Dreams) in 1899, was coming to the realisation that these first encounters are critical in the person’s build of relationships and in the understanding of dynamics relating to trust, power and authority. These first dealings, he theorised later in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1920), would also bear an impact in a person’s relationship with authority, including teachers at school, and eventually with managers in the workplace.

Freud believed that these early interactions went on to become a template on which further relationships were built. A cornerstone of his theory, is what he dubbed the Oedipus complex. Taking its name from Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Freud suggested that in their early years children go through similar psychic experiences to those of the protagonist in the play. Born to a king and queen, Oedipus was prophesied at birth to be a cause for the downfall of his kingdom through the assassination of his father and the development of an incestuous relationship with his mother. To avert this fate, the king gave his son away to be killed by a shepherd, who however took pity of the child and reared him as his own. Once grown up, he had a serendipitous confrontation at a junction with a stranger, who after killing him, Oedipus understood to be the king. As per tradition at that time, he then took on the role himself and in doing so married the queen and consumed his fate.

Freud believed that the tragedy’s content proved to be so powerful because it resonated with innate psychic tensions which are present in each individual, but which in adulthood are transferred out of awareness into the unconscious. According to Freud, young children harbour these same feelings, with boys wanting to marry their mother and kill their father. A challenge is encountered in that the child realizes that the father is stronger and cannot be ousted without adverse consequences. Gradually realising that these wishes are socially unacceptable, they are pushed away out of awareness, in one’s unconscious.

The emotions, encounters and challenges linked to this phase were seen by Freud as forming the basis for one’s perception of authority with elements of omniscience, and omnipotence being encountered in the process. Parents are perceived to be the seats of knowledge and the go-to place when a gap in knowledge is encountered. They typically have an answer to all questions and problems. In addition, they are also perceived as powerful as they can lift and reach objects outside of the child’s reach and interact in a way with the environment in a way that the child cannot due to limitations in motor abilities. A tension and ambivalence is encountered in trying to balance the need for support and the expression of the oedipal wishes.

While the universality and etymology of the Oedipus complex has been called into question and in part refuted, there is possibly a kernel of truth in assuming that early parent-child relationships represent a basis for later ones. If this is the case, there is a serious challenge awaiting managers, as well as aspiring ones, in their having to take on a leadership role.

Assuming that the feelings of ambivalence, omniscience and omnipotence come in play in a manager-employee relation, one can begin to understand how in most instances there will be scope for disappointment or disillusionment. In the industrial revolution the gap in understanding between managers, engineers and blue collar workers was a significant one, with the former having access to a formal education, training and experience as well as knowledge on the technology and processes in use. Fast forward to the present age, and this is largely no longer the case, with the employees actually working on the task very often having better knowledge and understanding on the processes they are undertaking. The specialisation in work tasks, as well as a knowledge-rich environment is leading to the narrowing of a gap and a corresponding shrivelling of authority. In what follows, consideration will be given to three key company tasks, namely recruitment, training and disciplinary procedures with some consideration to the implications of the changes in power and authority resulting from this shift in the seat of control.


Recruitment has been described as the human resources task that has most direct impact on bottom line and company performance (Hough and Oswald, 2000).
Power dynamics in the recruitment process are challenging in that there is a significant displacement at key stages along the line. While power and authority are maintained at the personnel manager’s end during screening, profiling and interviewing, power shifts on to the candidate once a job offer is placed and at hand (with power returned to the manager upon confirmation of acceptance). During the period between the job offer and acceptance, power is at the applicant’s end and this should be recognised as such.

Recognition of the power cycle in recruitment is important in that misplaced use of this in the early stage, can lead to problems at the later point. By not overstating and resonating with the feelings of omnipotence in the early stage one can avoid an element of ambivalence that could arise once the offer is placed, while also setting up a positive mind-set once a person is taken on in the company.


The traditional viewpoint in training has been one wherein the trainer is a repository of knowledge which is opened and shared with trainees during a training session.

Nowadays, knowledge can be accessed at all places and times through the availability of technology. Training at this point has shifted from being a one-sided dialogue to a communicative interchange in which trainer and trainee shift roles repeatedly to share experiences and viewpoints. With this paradigm shift it makes sense to speak of a training philosophy within a company rather than a training set up.
Unlike the parent-child relationship, there is no one possessor of omniscience but the training experience should rather be a collective endeavour aimed at achieving practical results through collaboration.


Administering disciplinary procedures within a company calls for a clear distinction in the seat of power and authority. After all, this is based on the notion that an employee has erred, and as a result of this she or he should be punished accordingly.

Once again, taking as a premise that no manager is omnipotent, one should question the concept and in establishing rules, guidelines and collective agreements, one should realise that the policies enacted therein should be drawn through a collaborative process, in such a way as to develop ownership of the said policies.


As a result of these developments, it is important for managers and leaders to realise that what held the traditional power and authority dynamics in place may no longer be there or is in rapid process of erosion. This is not to say that employees and groups can no longer be managed, but rather that different ways for doing so need to be developed.

Knowledge and strength are no longer the official recipient of a person in a role, but should rather be seen as the joint ownership of the team working on the task. Power and authority at this point become a function of an ability and capacity to motivate and drive towards results and targets.

The decentralisation of power and authority cannot come without a traumatic loss (for the manager) but a failure to realise this will possibly lead to a traumatic loss for the company. Probably if Oedipus had to meet the stranger at the junction nowadays he would not unsheathe his sword to settle an argument but take out his mobile phone to find a new route to go through via a maps application.


  • Freud, S. (2010). The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1899)
  • Freud, S. (2009). A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1920)
  • Hough, L. M., & Oswald, F. L. (2000). Personnel selection: Looking toward the future – remembering the past. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 631-664.
Last modified onTuesday, 24 December 2013 09:05
Calvin Cassar

Calvin Cassar is currently employed as Human Resources Manager at FTIAS, part of FTI GmbH, a multi-national company operating in the tourism industry. He holds particular interest and expertise in recruitment, assessment and quantitative analyses having gained exposure in these through academic as well as work experiences.

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