Building Supportive Alliances

Brad C. Anderson

Regardless of your position in the organization, you will require the support of others to act. Recall from the opening of Chapter III that seventy percent of major change programs fail.

They fail because groups within the organization resist the change. These failures occur even when senior management wants the change to happen. Even the CEO requires support from groups within their organization if they want their actions to take hold.

How do we create that support?

Through bookstores, business schools, and consultants, there are many educational resources discussing issues of leadership and change management. Rather than reiterate those resources, this textbook focuses on the organizational wisdom framework–that is, values, rationality, and power. It views the process of finding allies to support your actions as exercising the power tactic of producing power relations. This section considers the roles that values and rationality play in creating these power relations.

Using Values to Create Allies: Producing Power Relations

As described earlier, people establish organizations to pursue a set of values. For example, Canadian society created healthcare organizations to pursue the terminal value of public interest using instrumental values of altruism, innovation, robustness, sustainability, and dialogue. You will generally find your organization will enable actions consistent with its values and constrain actions that violate them.

Let’s assume you have identified an action your organization needs to take. Perhaps it needs to revise its hiring practices or reduce its carbon footprint, or any other action you may deem necessary.

When planning how you will create this action, one of the first things to reflect on is whether you need the support of any stakeholders within the organization. If your activities are limited in scope, you may be able to implement it by yourself. A teacher in a classroom, for example, may be able to change their teaching strategies without needing support from any other area in the organization.

Often, though, you may need support from other departments to implement a change. For example, you may need funding to buy equipment, or personnel to perform required work, and so on. If that same teacher wanted to reduce the average class size in their school from thirty-five to thirty students, this would require the agreement of many departments to implement.

The remainder of this chapter assumes the need to gain support from other areas in your organization (or beyond).

When attempting to drive action in your organization that requires the support of others, the first thing you must do is identify the organization’s terminal and instrumental values. There are several ways you can achieve this understanding.

  • Review the organization’s mission and vision statement along with strategy documents that senior managers have created. Sometimes these documents will explicitly state the organization’s values. Other times, you may need to intuit the values implied in the goals it has set for itself.
  • Spend time observing the organization. What does it do? Which activities does the incentive structure promote? Are certain actions constrained? You will then need to reflect on what values those actions imply.
  • Recall from Chapter IV that organizations require a multitude of values to thrive. Many organizations will assign different groups or individuals the responsibility of pursuing different values.
    • For example, in hospitals, physicians, nurses, and healthcare workers assume responsibility for the value of public interest, which they achieve through caring for the sick.
    • Administrators, however, focus on balancing the budget and ensuring the hospital has the resources it needs to function. Those activities imply the values of sustainability and robustness.
  • Does your organization have a similar division of labour? Which departments are responsible for which value? How do they pursue that value? How do departments interact with each other?


Example: The Seniors Program

Let’s look at the Seniors Program from Appendix 1. The fellowship wanted to develop and spread the Seniors Program. To do this, they needed resources such as time and personnel from the vice presidents. Each group was operating in pursuit of specific values.

Fundamental values guiding members of the fellowship:

  • Terminal value = public interest (by delaying frailty).
  • Instrumental values =
    • innovation (creating a new intervention)
    • dialogue (by collaboration between institutions)
    • robustness & sustainability (reducing demand on hospitals by improving community health)

Fundamental values guiding vice presidents:

  • Terminal value = public interest (by providing healthcare infrastructure to communities)
  • Instrumental values =
    • robustness (ensuring hospitals could meet patient demand)
    • sustainability (balancing the budget to ensure hospitals remain a going concern)


Once you understand the values guiding the organization, you must reflect on how the activities you wish to perform align with the organization’s terminal and instrumental values. Because organizations require many values to thrive, your actions may align with all the organization’s values (rare) or align with some but not all values. Other times, your activities may deeply contravene the terminal values of dominant groups. Let’s see how to handle each of those three situations.

When desired actions align with all organizational values:

Great! You will need to use the power tactic of defining rationality to ensure critical stakeholders see how your desired actions align with the organization’s values.

When desired actions align with some but not all organizational values:

Focus on the values that do align with your organization’s values. Define rationality to position your efforts in stakeholder’s minds in a way that highlights areas of overlap.

Identify those groups in the organization whose values align with the action you wish to take.

  • You might consider presenting your plans to them as they may be able to offer you support as you move your efforts forward.
  • Doing this is an example of producing power relations.
  • Even if these groups are unable to provide direct assistance, they may speak on your behalf to powerful stakeholders, which builds your base of support.

Reflect on the impact of groups pursuing unrelated or conflicting values on your desired action.

  • There may be no impact. Your desired actions may not affect another group’s pursuit of their values, and so you may be able to ignore each other.
  • There may be passive resistance. Some groups may be indifferent to your actions, while some may even wish you well. Others may want you to go away and stop bothering them.

For whatever reason, these groups may be unwilling to provide the resources or support you need to succeed. What you will likely see in these cases is others using tactics of the second dimension of power. Rather than engage in open conflict or seeking to influence others against you, they will avoid or suppress conflict.

Alternatively, there may be active resistance. Other groups pursuing different values may see your actions as a threat to their activities and use their power to stop you. That is, they may use tactics of the first, second, or third dimensions of power against you.

When desired actions are incompatible with the terminal values of dominant groups:

Making progress in this situation will be difficult–extremely difficult. In this case, you have some tough choices to make because organizations can act unkindly towards individuals or groups that express incompatible values.

If the groups you are working against possess sufficient power, you may find yourself ostracized by your colleagues. You may experience fewer opportunities for advancement. You may find your work discredited and your reputation challenged. You could lose your job.[1]

In such situations, you may wish to reconsider whether you want to take action. Perhaps you would be better off moving to an organization whose values align with yours.

There are times, though, when organizations need to change. Sometimes an action must be taken because it is the right thing to do. Examples of such cases include if the organization is acting unethically or self-destructively.

In such cases, implementing the action you wish to make requires a significant amount of power. You may need the power of executive management to drive such actions. Alternatively, you may need to find stakeholders outside the organization that possesses the capacity to influence its actions. This is an example of using power against the organization.

The world needs brave people to take courageous action. This textbook, however, would be remiss if it failed to tell you that such people are often treated poorly by the organization they seek to change.

If your actions are incompatible with the organization’s values, and you attempt to exercise power against it, the organization may use its power to stop you. Depending on the organization’s ability, the result can be destroyed careers, reputations, and lives.

Be sure to assess the political landscape in which you operate thoughtfully. Think through whether you need to create the change you envision before acting against an organization’s values. Consider how you might protect yourself if the organization chooses to retaliate.


Example: The Seniors Program

Returning to the Seniors Program from Appendix 1, recall the fellowship needed resources such as additional personnel. Gaining these resources required support from vice presidents. The organization’s vice presidents, however, were initially unsupportive of the program.

Vice presidents were responsible for reducing the overcrowding of their hospitals. This responsibility speaks to values of robustness and sustainability. Though many found the Seniors Program an exciting idea, they felt they could not spare resources to support it.

Vice presidents engaged in two-dimensional power tactics.

  • They refused to allow members of the fellowship onto meeting agendas. Unable to speak at meetings, hardly anyone in the organization knew of the Seniors Program. Consequently, the fellowship found it challenging to build support.
  • Occasionally, the fellowship did find people willing to help with the project. Vice presidents, however, forbade their staff from participating, arguing that the Seniors Program would distract them from their job duties.
  • Starved of needed resources, the Seniors Program floundered.

Members of the fellowship recognized the importance of the values of robustness and sustainability to the organization. They believed that by improving the health of the seniors’ population, fewer people would require hospitalization. By reducing demand on hospitals in this way, the program thus contributed to robustness and sustainability.

The fellowship went on a campaign of defining rationality. They marshalled data supporting the idea that the Seniors Program was a solution to the vice presidents’ problems. They presented their arguments to vice presidents, and after several months of effort, they began to gain allies.

Vice presidents began using their power to support the program. The fellowship was allowed to attend meetings and present their work. Vice presidents enabled members of their staff to work with the fellowship.


This section considered the role of values in the production of power relations. The following paragraphs examine the role of rationality in producing these alliances.


Key Takeaways

  • To use values to produce power relations.
    • Understand the values the organization pursues
    • Consider the relationship between the terminal and instrumental values in the organization.
    • Evaluate how the organization organizes itself to pursue each of these values
    • Reflect on how your desired actions align (or conflict) with organizational values
    • Define rationality to build power relations with individuals and groups whose values align with yours
    • Consider how groups with conflicting values will resist your efforts.
    • Assess how severe resistance might be and take appropriate action to manage it

  1. Flyvbjerg, B. (2002). Bringing Power to Planning Research: One Researcher’s Praxis Story. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 21(4), 353–366.


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Building Supportive Alliances Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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