Organizational Determinants of Power

Horizontal power refers to the relationship between peer groups or departments of similar levels.  Vertical power is the relationship related to the hierarchy within the institution.  Power can be one dimensional, where people are made to do something they would not normally do, two dimensional, similar to one dimensional but also controlling of agendas and discussions to prevent differing viewpoints that may be raised, and three dimensional, where individuals are manipulated into believing that their needs are being met (Bess & Dee, 2012b). 

Strategic Contingency Theory refers to the power one unit gains because others are dependent on them.  There are four contingencies that predict the subunits that will become the most powerful.

1.      Scarcity: when one subunit is able to acquire scarce resources that other subunits need.  This power compounds because as the subunit gains power by acquiring the resources and then because of the power it commands can gain additional benefits.  Bess and Dee (2012b) compare this to a “rich get richer” scheme.

2.      Uncertainty: when a subunit can provide stability in an uncertain environment, those subunits will have more power than the ones they are assisting.  Organizations are divided into subsystems, creating an interdependency among them (Hickson, et al, 1971).

3.      Workflow: how subunits are connected is known as pervasiveness.  When a process is sequential, they first subunit will hold power, because the second is waiting for the first’s completion before they can begin their work (Bess & Dee, 2012).  A subunit that can respond quickly to an emergency will have more power than one who cannot.

4.      Nonsuitability: A subunit that performs a function that cannot be replaced or replicated by another subunit will have more power.

William Gamson, a political and social scientist, created his own theory concerning institutional power.  Gamson identifies potential partisans as the group affected by the authorities.  Groups can be formally formed or informal.  Partisans are influenced by the trust they feel towards the authorities.  While trust can influence the work environment of an organization, it does not directly impact the organization’s effectiveness (Bess & Dee, 2012).


Bess, J. L., & Dee, J. R. (2012). Understanding college and university organization: Volume II-the state of the system.  Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Hickson, D. J., Hinnings, C. R., Lee, C. A., Schneck, R. E., and Pennings, J. M. (1971).  A strategic contingencies’ theory of intraorganizational power.  Administrative Science Quarterly, 16(2), 216-229.

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