Organizational Behavior: Power, Conflict & Group Work

The Apollo 13 case study



This report offers insight into various aspects of Organisational Behavior that have been identified from three different incidents in the sequence of events surrounding the Apollo 13 mission. We put forward a number of characteristics found in various members of organisations. These usually relate to positions, roles, goals, authority, communication, attitudes and relationships


This report offers insight into various aspects of Organisational Behaviour that have been identified from three different incidents in the sequence of events surrounding the Apollo 13 mission. We put forward a number of characteristics found in various members of organisations. These usually relate to positions, roles, goals, authority, communication, attitudes and relationships.

The main focus has been placed on four aspects which we have identified as pertaining to the incidents chosen. The first of the three incidents selected is referred to as the ‘Medical Incident’. Here we take a look at the situations of conflict that arise when there is a imposed change in the formation of the Apollo 13 crew. We also take a brief look at the organisational structure of NASA, since the way in which the organisation is designed has an impact on how its members behave.

The second incident is referred to as the ‘Failure is Not an Option Incident’ concentrates on the aspect of power and leadership that is demonstrated by an individual in the organisation, namely the Flight Director on duty during the Apollo 13 mission. We take a look at the types of power he possesses and the way it affects his leadership style.

Finally, the third incident which is referred to as the ‘Manual Burn Incident’ relates to the behavioural aspects of group and team members within this particular organisation. We take a look at how these groups and teams are formed and how they associate with each other and work together to successfully achieve their goals and objectives.

Incident # 1 – The ‘Medical’ Incident

Brief Description

Ken Mattingly, who was originally selected to be command module pilot, is removed from the flight two days before launch because of the risk he might be infected after being exposed to measles. Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, argues to keep Ken Mattingly, who is one of the most conscientious, hard working of all the astronauts. The medical team think that the risk is too great so Jim is forced to replace Ken with Jack Swigert, the backup command module pilot who “has been out of the loop for weeks”.


“Conflict appears to be an integral component of human functioning” (Slabbert, 2003, Pg 83). There are many definitions of conflict, each one with a different key aspect. Most of the times, conflict is the situation where “one side perceives that the other side is blocking its goal achievement and expectation” (Kwahk & Kim, 1998, Pg 448).

In Apollo 13, Jim and his superiors have a serious organizational conflict, which is “far more evident in problem solving and decision making situations” (Paul et. al, 2004, Pg 304). In this case a decision must be taken upon a medical recommendation: on the one hand, Jim thinks that the medical advisor undermines his mission because he wants to replace one member of the team two days before launch. On the other hand, the medical advisor thinks that it is too dangerous to let Ken fly on this mission because of serious indications that he is going to get sick during a crucial part of the mission. The doctor has the support of senior management, especially Deke who does not want to take that risk.
In this situation, there is also another person involved. Acting as a mediator he is the “neutral third party person who assists in the achievement of a negotiated solution by using reason and presentation of alternatives” (Buchanan & Huczynski, 1997, Pg 658).

Faced with these facts, Jim now has two options, he can either choose to replace Ken and continue with his mission on the Apollo 13, or he can cancel the mission and his team will be used for the next mission.

Jim seems to use two different conflict resolution approaches (Whetton & Cameron, 2005, Pg 410). When he talks to his superior, Jim cannot do much to persuade him change his mind, so he uses the ‘accommodating’ approach because he thinks that the mission should continue despite any last-minute changes. He thinks that the final project success is more important than one team member, letting the desire to obtain his and NASA’s goals (concern for production) overcome “the desire to retain interpersonal relationships (concern for people)” (Holt & DeVore, 2005, Pg 167). He balances the cost in money, time and reputation for his organisation (NASA) and he makes a decision to carry on without Ken. When he talks to Ken, he changes his conflict resolution method to ‘forcing’ because he just announces his decision to the rest of the team, without any option of discussion. When Ken says to Jim that they can talk to Deke and persuade him not to change the crew, he replies “This was my call” and ends the issue there.

As a new member of the crew, Jack’s capabilities are questioned by the fact that he has not practised enough in the simulator. The conflict between Jack and Fred is obvious from the beginning, because Fred has an informal connection with his friend Ken. Worchel (2005) points out “the division of people into groups can sow the seeds of conflict” so from the minute they split into two groups (Jim and Fred against Jack), it was inevitable that conflict would arise. “Development of each conflict episode is determined by a complex combination of the effects of preceding episodes” (Vaaland & Hakansson, 2003, Pg 128), so during execution phase (flight), these two men express their feelings and argument, at the risk of the project success. It is Jim who takes action as commander (or Project Manager) and uses the “smoothing conflict management style where he recognises that disagreement exists and minimizes the differences while striving for harmony” (Gobeli, Koenig & Bechinger, 1998, Pg 427).

It is therefore clear that Jim is a very experienced leader who can manage conflicts, which after all are inevitable consequences of organisational structures (Mullins, 2005, Pg 904) (Clegg, 2004, Pg 255), using different styles and techniques to address the problem. This feature makes him flexible and successful because he can identify the situation he is in and change his method of resolving conflicts.


Organization structure is “the system of arrangements, the pattern or network of relations, between the various positions and their holders” (Buchanan & Huczynski 1997, Pg 297). Mintzberg (1981, Pg 104) notes, “how that coordination is achieved, by whom, and with what, dictates what the organization will look like.” The structure of every organisation depends on how the activities are ordered.

In the case of NASA, the structure appears to be a ‘Tall Organization Structure’. Tall structures usually imply that there is a high level of bureaucracy and “fewer employees report to each manager and hence the span-of-control of each manager is narrow” (Buchanan & Huczynski, 1997 Pg 297). Therefore, because the organisation is more bureaucratic, information from one department to the other has to go through the ‘managers’. In this particular incident, the medical team advise their superior of their findings, he in turn reports to Deke (Jim’s superior), who then passes on the information to Jim, who then finally delivers his decision to his team.

Diagram 1 and Diagram 2 below depict the same group of people within the organisation. However, Diagram 1 of shows their formal relationships, while Diagram 2 shows the informal structure which is “the network of relationships that spontaneously establish themselves between members of the organization on the basis of their common interests and friendships” (Robbins, 1983, Pg 77).


The Informal Structure is of particular significance in this incident since the bond between the original team members is so strong. However “from a managerial viewpoint, such network can be positive or negative” (Krackhardt & Hanson, 1993 Pg 104). The relationships can have a positive outcome because team members who have the same goal are also bound by friendship and respect. In this incident, Jim, Fred and Ken are not only colleagues, but also have a tight bond as friends, which is also apparent in the way they work together. The problems arise when an ‘outsider’ is brought into the team. Since the newcomer is replacing not only a colleague, but also a friend, the personal feelings of the other members come into play, thus causing conflict. This is shown in Fred’s attitude towards Jack which results from Ken having to leave the team.

Incident # 2 – The ‘Failure is Not an Option’ Incident

Brief Description

Gene Kranz, is the Flight Director for NASA’s Mission Control Unit during the Apollo 13 space mission. He is responsible for leading his team to successfully find a way to bring the three astronauts on the Apollo 13 back home after an unexplained explosion causes the spacecraft extensive damage. Gene Kranz and his team face two main issues. On the one hand, they have to determine the safest part of the ship to use for the astronaut’s return. On the other hand, they have to come up with a way to save power and also provide the astronauts with a feasible re-entry procedure.


The aspect of Power pertaining to the role and behaviour of Gene Kranz, are clearly visible in this incident. Power has been defined as “the capacity of individuals to overcome resistance on the part of others, to exert their will, and to produce results consistent with their interest and objectives” (Dahl in Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004, Pg 828).

Power bases can be grouped as being “formal” stemming from one’s position within the organisation, or “informal” stemming from one’s personal relationships and attributes, (Melia & Peiro, 1984). Formal power is found in a hierarchical organisation is carried out from the top-down where “superiors exert power on their subordinates while the opposite is not the case” (Melia & Peiro, 1984). Informal power is not “necessarily associated with formal structure and can flow in all direction. However, position in the hierarchies affects the developments of personal relationships” (Melia & Peiro, 1984). Having said so, the extent of the power possessed by two individuals in the same position within the hierarchy may vary as a result of their personal relationships.

In order to perform effectively as a leader, Kranz shows that he in possession of the element of power which is vital “to initiate and sustain action translating intention into reality, the quality without which leaders cannot lead” (Smith & Alexander in Pfeffer, 1992, Pg 13). The definition of Power itself is not as important as “who gets it, when, how and why” (Mintzberg, 1983, Pg 1). Therefore, in this case we shall start to look at Power mainly from the “Power-as-property viewpoint” (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004, Pg 829).

In this incident, power is possessed by Kranz as an individual as well as well as through his relationships with his colleagues. In the first place, we see how Kranz applies power through various “social and interpersonal skills” (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004, Pg 829), and how this kind of power is visible and obvious. According to Pfeffer (1981), this kind of power stems from a number of sources, but here we shall only look into those relevant to this situation. Kranz’s power as a leader originates from his position within the organisation’s structure and hierarchy.

Another source of his power is his ability to obtain and control information and resources, and since he is a respected member of the organisation he also has access to the communication network of NASA. Kranz listens attentively to all the information and opinions provided by the specialists in order to enable him to make the best informed decision possible. His power and ability to do so are especially important in such a case when the emergency occurs, time is limited and there is also a high level of uncertainty.

This aspect of Power is further reinforced, and particularly relevant in this situation, by the importance of Kranz’s team within the structure of the organisation and their function in resolving serious problems and minimising uncertainty (Pfeffer, 1981). The fact that this team has a high level of unity and low level of conflict, that Kranz’s actions are highly regarded by the organisation and that during this crucial event Kranz and his team were indispensable all contribute the power he possesses.

On an personal basis according to (Pfeffer, 1981) individual power comes from one’s ability to utilise energy and not waste effort; being responsive and being able to interpret and comprehend others; being flexible when it comes to choosing methods for reaching objectives; and being thick skinned and not being afraid of conflict and confrontation, traits that Kranz shows clearly in this incident. In most situations, leaders must have the ability to make the final decision and exploit their power to put this decision into action. In this incidence, the specialists provide various suggestions and solutions on how to bring the astronauts back home, they argue and even strongly raise objections to one another’s points of view, but Kranz has the final word and makes the decision based on his prompt evaluation of the information provided.

On the other hand power is also shown as being the “property of a relationship between the power holder and others, rather than just a property of the individual alone”. Those who follow, need to feel “that the leader has access to rewards, sanctions, expertise and so on”. “The exercise of power depends on the beliefs, perceptions and desires of the followers” (French & Raven in Buchanan & Huczynski, 2004, Pg 830). Therefore an individual such as Kranz can exert power not based solely on the fact that he has authority, but on the extent to which he is authority is perceived by others.

Taken from the bases outlined by French & Raven (1958), the power held by Kranz can be said to come mainly from the belief that he has sought-after skills and personal characteristics that can and should be emulated (Referent Power); the belief that he has authority to give out orders which they are obligated to follow due to his position within the formal organisation structure (Legitimate Power) and the belief that he has higher knowledge related to the present situation and mission (Expert Power). Since these bases are prone to change over time, Kranz’s “expert power” is likely to increase due to the success of this mission.

In order to manage the conclusions reached and the recommendations made by his team in the way he deems most appropriate, Kranz makes use of the “personal control system”. Kranz gives “direct orders … telling the subordinate exactly what to do” (Mintzberg, 1983, Pg 143). In this incident, Kranz tells his team to call in all the engineers that designed the machines, and all the people in the assembly lines that put the machines together in order to find out how to obtain the maximum power out of both modules. Kranz also sets “the decision premises … establishing guidelines or specific constraints within which the subordinates must decide” (Mintzberg, 1983, Pg 143) when he says at the start of the meeting, “I want you all to forget the flight plan. From this moment on, we are improvising a new mission” asking them to tell him was it is that is good on the ship.

Kranz also allows them to “make specific decisions, but then exercises his formal right to review that decision before it is turned into action” (Mintzberg, 1983, Pg 143). And finally, when leaving the room, he allocates “resources … delegates power to make decisions fully but retains one final means of personal control: the setting of the resource constraints within which the all the subordinate’s decisions must fall” (Mintzberg, 1983, Pg 144). Here Kranz leaves his team with the task to provide the astronauts with a re-entry procedure, he walks away, once again demonstrating his position with these memorable words, “We have never lost an American in space, and we are sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch, failure is not an option!”

Incident # 3 – The ‘Manual Burn’ Incident

Brief Description

Mission Control realise that the angle of the spacecraft is too shallow and it is being thrown off trajectory. The crew at Mission Control decide a burn is needed to get the astronauts back on track for their re-entry. The astronauts are informed of this decision but are advised that the computer references cannot be used. Jim Lovell (Team Leader) opts to carry out a manual burn, keeping one fixed point in space. The astronauts and Mission Control prepare for the Manual Burn. Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigart then execute the task.

Group Work

Group work is often seen as a set of people working together to achieve a common goal. To define a group, a group must have certain qualities, “each member is conscious about their own and others existence within the group…members have common aims or ideals that to some extent bind them together…members influence and respond to each other in the process of communicating” (Jaques 2000, Pg 1). A group can be of any particular kind, but one important feature of a group is the “continuing face to face relationships between its members” (Smith 1973, Pg 1).

NASA’s ground crew for the Apollo 13 Mission can be viewed as one group, as all members of the organization are working together and interacting with eachother to accomplish one specific goal. As the Manual Burn incident occurs, this group can subsequently be divided into two groups, Mission Control and the Astronauts. Mission Control involves many people who are all aware of one another, who are all working together on one specific mission and all communicate to successfully achieve their goal. Mission Control keep regular contact with the Astronauts, these two sets of people as a whole can be defined as a group, as they “perceive themselves to be a group” (Mullins 2005, Pg 518 ).

There are two different types of groups, formal groups and informal groups. A formal group is “designed and created around a specific task” (Wilson & Rosenfeld 1990, Pg 518). An informal group is “the forming and coming together of individuals on a voluntary basis, they share information and try out new ideas, and these groups are intangible and have their own way of doing things” (Wilson & Rosenfeld 1990, Pg 123). In this incident, Apollo 13’s Mission Control is portrayed as a formal group, all individuals are working together to perform a specific task, the task of bringing the Astronauts back on trajectory. In order for this to happen they decide a manual burn is needed.

Although the Astronauts can be seen as a group, they hold more characteristics of a team. A team can be viewed as “a number of people who have a common goal and recognize there personal success is dependant on the success of others, they are all interdependent” (Crainer 1998, Pg 237).

There are strong differences between a team and a group. These differences are identified in the Table 1 below:

Table 1: Differeneces between a team and a group

The Manual Burn incident show Mission Control as one group, this group is large in size with many group members, each member provides there own ideas and contributes towards a shared aim, the final decision is always made by the Flight Director, Gene Kranz. However, the Astronauts are actually a team. The team is much smaller, with only 3 members, they underwent a crucial selection period to go on the mission and they have different skills that complement each other to achieve there goal of successful completion of the Manual Burn.

As already stated, all members involved in the Apollo 13 Mission can be seen as one group, during the incident, this group can be split into two, Mission Control and the Astronauts. Establishing Mission Control as a ‘subgroup’ and the Astronauts as a team, it is important to understand that although a team can be part of a group, a group cannot be part of a team.

In an organisaiton there are many types of teams. According to Eric Sunderstorm, Kenneth De Merge and David Futrell (1990) there are four types of teams, advice teams, action teams, project teams, and production teams. During Manual Burn incident, we can consider the Astronauts as a project team, because it “consists of individuals who have been brought together for a limited period of time, from different parts of the organization, to contribute towards a management specified task. Once this has been completed, the team is either disbanded or else its members are given new assignments.” (Huczynski & Buchanan 2001, Pg 384).

The Manual Burn incident shows three team members, Jim, Fred and Jack. They all have different skills and control different systems. Jim controls the angle of the space craft, looking out of the window to visualize there target in space. Fred is responsible for the direction and Jack is in charge of time keeping. In this situation this project team may be considered as a cross-functional team. “Cross-functional teams refers to a team composed of employees from about the same hierarchical level but from different work areas or functions in the organization, who are brought together to complete a particular task” (Huczynski & Buchanan 2001, Pg384).

Within a team different team members have different team roles. Applying Belbins Team Role Theory, we can identify some key behavioral challenges that the team face within this manual burn incident. From Belbins nine team roles we can identify the three members to a specific role.

(Buchanan & Huczynski, 1997 Pg 227)

Through this incident we can apply the role of ‘shaper’ to Jim as he is the person in charge. He has an immense amount of motivation and provides his team members with their specific individual tasks. In this incident Jim gives clear instructions to his team, “Freddo you handle the pitch, put on the transistor controls, all backwards. So if the Earth is drifting down, you need to thrust aft, not forward. I’ll do the same on mine with everything else. Were going to burn at 10% thrust for 39 seconds, Jack you time us”.

Fred can be viewed as a ‘specialist’ as he provides skills and knowledge to direct the spacecraft. He is also a dedicated team member. Jack is seen as the ‘completer’, he is the time keeper and is entrusted to finish the task.


In conclusion, based on the three incidents identified in this report, the main characteristics identified show the strong relationships between members involved in the Apollo 13 Mission.

A key behavioural characteristic shows the different types of conflict resolution styles. These conflict resolution styles appear to differ according to the position of the members that, in this case, Jim is dealing with. During the discussions with his superiors, Jim tends to be more submissive, while he appears to be more aggressive and decisive when dealing with team mates whom he is in charge of. Jim addresses conflict and uses resolution methods wisely because he makes a distinction based on the levels of hierarchy.

As a result of the conflict situations that arise, the impact of the informal structure of the individuals and their relationships seem to overcome the rigidity of the formal structure of the organisation. Although there is a change in the formation of the team, the structure remains the same. However, the strong relationship bonds have an impact on the way the team operates which results in lack of support and cooperation.

The degree of power pertaining to individuals within the organisation can also be seen on a formal and informal level. The extent to which power is perceived by subordinates not only stems from the hierarchical position of the leader but also from the respect and admiration they have for that individual. The significant relationships that are formed throughout the organisation are reflected in the way members interact and behave when subjected to power and authority in this crisis situation.

As a result of the critical events surrounding the Apollo 13’s crew, we have seen how the astronauts are forced to move from a high performing team to a group when the original team formation is changed. However, this group soon becomes a performing team again when faced with having to resolve a crisis situation together. In such situations, groups and teams complement each other to obtain the best results possible.

Although NASA has a very well defined hierarchy and a highly bureaucratic setup, in the end human relationships have a strong impact on the way the organisation and its members operate. This is highlighted especially when dealing with a crisis situation like that of the ill-fated Apollo 13.


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