Using politeness to model the psychosocial dynamics of power in organizational interaction

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Purpose: The purpose is to show how actors' relative power or parity is dynamically instanced in discrete speech behaviors that are exchanged throughout everyday organizational interaction. Design/methodology/approach: Politeness theory, rooted in the dramaturgical theories of Erving Goffman, details a set of linguistic indices used to show regard for others' face. This conceptual paper draws on politeness theory to model the unfolding of power relations within face-to-face verbal interchange in organizations. The paper presents a number of propositions suggesting how power differentials (or parity) are reflected in a set of common speech behaviors used to defray threats to face throughout organizational interaction. Findings: This article extends and applies politeness theory to organizations by exploring specific motives and linguistic outcomes of high and low power actors, describing the behavioral egalitarianism associated with organic organizations, and suggesting how the demand characteristics of face-to-face interaction create oligarchic tendencies that militate against the success of workplace participation. Politeness' role in the social construction of power, and in distortive processes within hierarchical communication, is also discussed. Research limitations/implications: This paper enables researchers to understand the specific linguistic features associated with power-related roles, and it shows how the social distribution of certain speech behaviors is a function of power and dependency relations. Practical implications: The findings provide managers a fine-grained understanding of how power affects speech, and an understanding of how such speech patterns may stymie attempts to stimulate organizational empowerment and employee voice. Originality/value: Prior scholarship has neglected this most important topic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)247-273
Number of pages27
JournalInternational Journal of Organizational Analysis
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Strategy and Management
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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