How to prevent power struggles in teams

Video content:

Power struggles in teams can be harmful for organisations. While co-operation and support is the organisation’s desire, power struggles can produce the opposite effect. Research by Dr Lisanne van Bunderen at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) shows that power struggles erupt when a team experiences a threat or uncertainty, and is individualistic in nature. One way to avoid power struggles is to create teams that have no hierarchy.

Internal power battles are common in organisations. Lisanne van Bunderen says: “Take the epic power struggle between Steve Jobs and John Sculley that almost took down Apple. Power struggles tend to harm organisations because they hamper the co-operation and trust between members, and distract them from their actual task.” Van Bunderen wanted to know from her research why and when power struggles erupt within teams – and how they can be prevented.

Inter-team conflicts

First Van Bunderen looked at the relationship between conflicts between teams, and power struggles within teams. The general assumption is that conflicts between teams unite them internally. Van Bunderen expected that this would be true only for teams with an egalitarian power structure, but not for hierarchical teams. In order to test this, she and her researchers conducted an experiment.

She gathered 267 respondents, who were split into 89 teams of three people each. These teams were placed into test situations with four variables; ‘with inter-team conflict’ or ‘without inter-team conflict’,  and ‘with internal power hierarchy’ or ‘with equality of team members’. The teams were asked to complete a task while they were observed for power struggle behaviours. The researchers then analysed the performances of the teams, to see if the task was hampered by power struggles within the teams.

Van Bunderen found that there were significantly more power struggles in hierarchical teams that were in conflict with another team. Their internal power struggles also negatively affected the way they performed in their team’s task. These results were later confirmed in a survey conducted among the employees of a large Dutch health insurance company.


Analyses showed that power struggles, that impair performance in teams, not only erupt when they are in conflicts over resources with other teams, but also when teams face uncertainty or organisational change.

So, when a team is confronted with an external threat, uncertainty, or organisational change, then team members have two options. Van Bunderen: “They can unite and fight the threat together, or they can try to protect their own position by getting more power.

Members will choose the individualistic approach when their team is hierarchical, or when they don’t depend on each other for their results. In egalitarian teams, or in teams where they do depend on each other, members refrain from power struggles.

Van Bunderen: “Therefore, to prevent members from engaging in power struggles, organisations should do two things. They can try to minimize the experience of threat in teams, but often that’s not possible. The more viable option is to create teams that have a more collectivistic team structure, such as flatter power structures, or structures in which team members are more dependent on each other for their outcomes.”

Download Lisanne van Bunderen’s full thesis here: Tug-of-War: Why and when teams get embroiled in power struggles.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Ivo Martijn, media officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at

Share this article: