The challenge of Power
Written by Kurt Nielsen. July 21. 2022
Yet another essay in the Statler and Waldorf series. We are examining the consequences of basing an organization on power* and what the alternative could be.
Statler and Waldorf were always quick to identify the weak spots in the Muppet show. And although their critiques were mostly quite harsh, they often had a point.
Perhaps, many would say that criticism of the current classic hierarchical management paradigm is pointless. That is how the world is, just get over it and get on with it. But, we would like to show that there is another and better way based on a network of teams. This article deals with just one key aspect linked to the Classic Hierarchy – that of power.
The pursuit of Power is endemic; the idea that someone can tell someone else what to do. Why is it so? What are the consequences? What are the alternatives?
It seems to be a sad fundamental human condition that unless something is in place to prevent it, some human beings will seek to control and dominate others – sometimes even exploit them. There have always been rulers, from the local feudal lord to kings and emperors who could treat their subordinates as their property – more or less of course. The military is another example right from the Roman legions and Prussian army to today’s forces.
“You see, in this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Western world has mostly abandoned totalitarian government at the national level and to various degrees adopted democracy, where people choose those who represent them. But in the corporate world, we still look for the heroic leader or the Imperial CEO and expect a management hierarchy where commands flow down and reports and deliverables ripple up. The superior will hire, fire, determine salary, rewards and punishment; although in many large organizations, some of these functions are delegated to administrators who blindly follow the rules, often making matters even worse.
Even when supporters of the modern Agile and Lean principles suggest changes in organizations it is very often under the premise of keeping the Hierarchy intact. Why is that? Do we have something like a flat-earth syndrome here? What-we-see-is-all-there-is.
Maybe it is because we have a deep-down desire for power. At least in the negative sense, there is clear evidence of this. When people desire to move up in the hierarchy, a common reason is to have more freedom. They don’t have to put up with as many detailed orders. But in general exercising power – getting things your way – feels good. I don’t think anybody can really deny that, we do cover it up of course, because most of us intuitively don’t regard this as our finest character trait.
Exercising power feels good, it gives a rush of excitement and then we want more. It is addictive. It can be demonstrated biologically that we get a dopamine high, resembling the effect of cocaine. People in power for a long time who enjoy the sensation, usually crave more and more control, they don’t mellow with time.
With power, of course, comes the possibility of securing ourselves privileges, especially if power is accompanied by access to serious money. That makes it even more attractive.
While not a universal trait, it is a fact that there is a high percentage of people in positions of power with psychopathic tendencies. They range from the ordinary alpha male, the control freak to the common a**hole. More or less every day the media has accounts of people who have no hesitation in exploiting others and feel entitled to have their needs take priority.
At the global level, autocratic rulers use their power to oppress minorities and attack other countries. We instinctively react against it, it is unacceptable, but in the corporate world the media mostly hails the imperial CEO and we all seem to accept it. Power over other people and its effect on human behavior is crippling community and collaboration.
When the USA was created in the late 18th century, the idea was to create a place where human beings could be free from the tyranny of kings, landlords or religions. They didn’t get it quite right, there was a blind spot for African Americans. But one of the fathers of the constitution, James Madison – later to become the fourth president of the USA, was very aware of the dangers of power, he said:
“All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree”
He was the principal agent in defining the system of checks and balances, where several agents of power (the legislative, the executive and the judicial) balance each other, to reduce the risk of someone grabbing too much power. We can sum up his views in the following statement: “Human beings thrive in freedom. Under the wrong system, they will actualize themselves by seeking absolute power. The answer is a system of checks and balances and due process.”
The effects of a power-based Organization
In an organization where power is the primary driver, a few things will always happen:
- There will be fear, and people will react accordingly.
- Confusion, Ambiguity and Uncertainty
- Complacency and Apathy
- Competition, vying for domination
The first three are dominant effects noted by David Marquet, polling more than a hundred audiences worldwide. The last one is a long-term effect that we often have experienced in organizations.
Fear is by far the dominant one and underpins all the other consequences.
Fear in a power-based organization is immediately observed and experienced, it is the very lifeblood of power. Living in fear has all sorts of negative consequences. I guess practically everybody would agree that living in fear is not something they would choose. Yet it is surprising that so many executives, sports coaches and other bosses believe that applying negative pressure to people is what brings results.
“Common soldiers should fear their own officers more than the enemy.” Frederick the Great of Prussia
Fear always invokes our most basic survival instinct, and we do what is necessary to stay out of trouble. We don’t think carefully, experiment, ask questions, etc. we just react instinctively.
- Fear reduces transparency. The first casualty of fear is usually the willingness to provide honest information or be seen. It is safer to hide and to keep quiet. Colleagues and superiors will make decisions without our input and more decisions will be based on incomplete information with greater potential for being wrong. When General Stanley McChrystal started to change the organization of coalition forces in Iraq in 2003, his first move was to institute Radical Transparency, so that everybody had a chance to know the facts.
- Green shifting and cooking of numbers. It follows that there will be a tendency to report the situation or the result just a little better than we know it to be, but not so much that it will be considered a lie – this is called Green Shifting. When it is about numbers, quotas and such, people will usually find ways to distort data or systems so that the requested numbers are met. Almost everybody has an abundance of stories about how KPIs were met in bogus ways or with dire side effects.
“When there is fear in an organization, the numbers are cooked.” Edwards Deming
“When we report to corporate downtown Manhattan, we always present the truth in its most favorable light.” Anonymous US CEO
- Not speaking up. This is really a particular case of the first bullet, but here we are usually thinking of people who observe a potential problem but fail to open their mouths for fear of repercussions from superiors who may see such an intervention as insubordination or as questioning their judgment. Amy Edmondson treats this subject in great detail in her work. If people do not feel psychological safety they hesitate to speak up, with all sorts of dire consequences. This may also mean avoiding asking clarifying questions to not reveal one’s own or the superior’s ignorance.
- Seeking non-commitment. When people are afraid of being blamed, they will seek positions where they are safe. A coat of protective Teflon (excuses and claims of ignorance) will make sure nothing sticks to them.
- Fear of breaking ranks. We all want to be accepted by our peers or the group from which we derive our self-worth. This fear applies to everybody in the organization, we do not want to be seen as outside our core group. In the traditional hierarchy, there is an institutionalized stratification and this particular fear often manifests itself in resistance to challenging or even asking questions about the ways of the particular layer in the organization. The thinking becomes very “Upstairs and Downstairs”.
Confusion, Ambiguity and Uncertainty
This section is linked to the presence of fear. It follows from the points above that many are forced to live in confusion and ambiguity, which adds stress and is at the same time a consequence of missing transparency and a positive feedback signal that amplifies the desire to take cover.
- Many people and teams are not sure why they are doing stuff or what it is intended to do; they have just been told to do this, that and the other. There hasn’t been a dialogue to reach a common understanding. Therefore they often produce something wrong. If something unexpected happens and people need to make decisions on the spot, the situation is aggravated; they will often go for the solution with the lowest personal risk to themselves.
- Uncertainty is in many ways the same thing, but it often surfaces differently. When people realize that they have to decide on something, they can be stifled by the uncertainty of what their mandate is and what they are allowed to do. It is often the safest bet to do nothing, as sins of omission usually are punished less than sins of commission.
“Do I know what is expected of me here?” The first question in Gallup’s Q12 Questionnaire
Complacency and Apathy
In an organization where some people have the power to tell others what to do, the latter will often revert to complacency or apathy, unless of course if they can’t stomach it and pack up and head for the mountains.
- Complacency is self-satisfaction typically accompanied by unawareness of actual issues or deficiencies. This sensation can spread in an organization with a benevolent superior, who may actually take really good care of people, make generally good decisions and give good orders. People are comfortable and generally, things are ok and no major threats loom on the horizon. But, there is no development, no challenging of the status quo and hence no learning. Such an organization can live happily for years in a stable environment, but it is not resilient and in a crisis and when things change rapidly, risks falling over the edge into chaos.
- Apathy is a state of neither caring nor being concerned about matters. In an organization where the decision makers are very distant or apparently unable to make much of a difference, people give up, shut up and throw up their hands – “what can I do?”. This is likely to happen if management does not listen to what people say and the people have no real alternative, so they stay under the radar. “Don’t stick up your head, it is always the tallest grass that gets cut around here”.
In any case, mediocrity and non-engagement will flourish.
Competition and Domination
When there is a power-based hierarchy in place, it is such a powerful attraction that it spurs man’s competitive instincts beyond what is helpful. We have witnessed in many organizations that people in the hierarchy spend a considerable amount of their effort in positioning themselves, taking credit for success and divesting the blame for failures, in order to be able to move up the hierarchy. This happens above the lowest couple of layers where customers normally are in focus. This competition is usually accompanied by the tendency to dominate others. In many hierarchies, confidence is often mistaken for competence and domination can be mistaken for confidence. Unfortunately, this can lead to the wrong kind of people getting up through the hierarchy, people who just like the kick of being able to dominate others.
What to do about it
In the Muppet Show, Kermit the frog is the eternal optimist always believing the next act will work out well. Let us, therefore, strike a more positive note at last.
But first, let us take a second look: Is it always bad to tell other people what to do? No, it is not, if people either do not have the factual competencies required or the clarity of where we need to go, then they cannot decide. If you have competence and clarity, you have to show leadership and make the call, and then start training the people in both areas. It is in nobody’s interest to push people beyond their limits. With sudden drops into chaos – unexpected challenges – it will also often be required to let one or a few, whom we trust to be the best, make the decisions in order to stabilize the situation. There may not be time for a more elaborate process.
But how can we dampen the struggle for power and give people the freedom to operate and engage? It requires a dampening of the quest for power and in the end a reversal, where it is replaced to focus on serving those who need the services or products.
It could be argued that to do this requires a redefinition of what authority means and a realignment of how accomplishments are evaluated and rewarded.
People can initiate such a change when triggered by an acute need, like David Marquet who realized that his submarine was a death trap with a captain trained for the wrong ship and a crew trained to obey orders and suppress initiative. It can also happen that when someone experiences an extraordinary act of trust and grace from someone else, they may develop a calling to do likewise.
David Marquet talks about “acting your way into new thinking”. Small incremental changes in one’s own behavior can start a process and over time induce a new culture. The overarching principles are transparency and invitation. Here are some suggestions:
- Demonstrate intent: say something like “I intend to do so and so…, what do you think?” It invites people to suggest a better way.
- Listen carefully and ask honest questions to understand the perspective of others.
- Take responsibility for the situation, do not pass blame. “There is no ‘they’ on the Santa Fe, there is only ‘we!’ “ was the Mantra on David Marquet’s submarine.
- Show appreciation and say it out loud when a good thing has been done. We all need to feel appreciated.
- Whenever something undesirable happens, jump in quickly and focus on the potential for learning to avoid the situation being dominated by blame, guilt and disappointment.
- Use words like: “It was important to me…”, “My interpretation/understanding is …, am I right?” and “I see the situation like this…”. These are non-dominating ways of stating your position and letting people know who you are and what your take is, without pushing for submission.
- Use words like: “Help me understand better how…”, “I wonder why…” and “I don’t have a solution, anybody got an idea…?”. These ways are inviting people to participate in the dialogue to examine the facts and the situation.
If you have been in traditional leadership positions for a while this will feel scary, weak and perhaps unprofessional. You will have that built-in urge to show determination and confidence because that is expected, right?
“I’m the guy who’s telling you the way it is.” Chili Palmer in the movie Get Shorty
Agile Lean Leadership is a framework that provides the tools to create a networked organization that is engaged and transparent. Using small cells called circles, organized primarily around a value stream, as in Lean, while still maintaining the ability to make decisions. It has provisions for handling decisions in the form of escalation, cross-cutting concerns and sudden drops into chaos. It takes its offset in the classic Scrum framework and expands it with a few extra constraints to scale out to an entire organization. It is a robust framework that organizations can use to start the journey toward an effective, resilient and engaging workplace. It is a framework that implements Madison’s: “system of checks and balances and due process” in a practical way.
If an organization is to successfully develop a modern, engaging leadership style, it must have the full commitment of the people holding power today; they must be willing to cede mandate to people further out in the organization involved in the real action, and these, in turn, must be willing to commit, not just to be back-seat drivers.
Command and control of course can work. The 20th century showed us that huge material gains could come out of mass production and splitting work into well-defined tasks. Obvious to Complicated work can in fact be managed through plan-delegate-monitor-control. In the same way, when work comes through sudden drops into Chaos, top-down authority may be the best way forward as mentioned above.
However, today much work is knowledge-based, in what Dave Snowden defines as the Complex-Complicated territory which requires voluntary collaboration and sense-making. That depends on engagement and the organization must underpin and enable this; a power-based hierarchy does not do that. The aristocratic view of management, the distinction between upstairs and downstairs including the separation of thinking and doing have to be abolished.
When democracies fail, typically because the people in power are not taking care of their citizens, or the democracy is not real in the first place. Then the cries for the strong man start to appear. When agile organizations fall back into the old command-and-control paradigm it is often because that leadership has not really reformed, they still keep the old ways and are quick to give up at the first speed bump. There has to be persistence and constancy of purpose, sharing the vision of choosing service over privilege. It is hard work but the rewards are high.
Let us end with another quote by James Madison:
“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea”
*) The term “Power” is used here to describe the situation where someone has the right to control others in an organization. This may include hiring, firing, salary and influence over their advancement within the organization. It is not to be seen as the opposite of weak, laissez-faire or unengaged.
Read our first article here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/challenge-traditional-hierarchy-kurt-nielsen