Wednesday, December 06, 2020

The Realities of Organizational Power

There has been considerable publicity in recent years for the prevalence and effects of unchecked corporate greed. There’s no doubt that there are many greedy executives, but not all are obsessed with money. Power is often as much of an attractor as cash. But the lure of power attracts people who often prove to be extremely poor leaders. Our current laissez faire attitude has produced some amazing monsters in top positions. It’s time to accept reality and stop pretending that those who lead our organizations are generally there through merit.

Lust for power has been an obvious characteristic of tyrants and rulers down the ages. The power to get your own way, the power to reward those faithful to you, the power to punish all those who oppose you. There’s a strong link between money and power, of course: having a great deal of cash—or producing high and consistent levels of profit—often confers power. It’s more than likely that the reason why so many executives are fascinated by increasing their personal earnings has less to do with yet more money to spend than with the power it promises to bring them.

Writing in Management Issues, Robert Heller expresses the conventional view on management power:
In fact, the power of the CEO has always been conditional, the largest element by far in the complex network of influence and authority in which all managers participate and which gives each of them a measure of individual power. Among these conditions is that all these holders of power have to justify their position by their performance, both in results and relationships in the eyes of their superiors and subordinates. The CEO is no exception, and rightly so.
In this view, power is conditional on job performance. Yet “the complex network of influence and authority” Heller mentions uses many criteria besides job performance: political influence, the trading of favors, the impact of status and recognition, even the effects of polite blackmail.

There is no reason to assume that those who amass the most power will also prove to be the best performers, either personally or organizationally. In fact, experience suggests that the amount of time necessary to play the political game, and the pure assertiveness and ruthlessness often needed to push your way to the top, tend to interfere with paying sufficient attention to job performance. Donald Trump has been highly successful in a material sense, and especially in terms of personal status, fame, and influence. Is he an outstanding business leader, judged on pure leadership ability and technical, business, or management know-how? The evidence doesn’t support this. Mr. Trump is largely famous for being the kind of person he portrays himself to be. Increasingly, he is famous for being famous.

One recent survey seems to suggest that remarkably few bosses show even acceptable leadership skills, let alone good ones. Wayne Hochwarter and two of his doctoral students from Florida State University surveyed more than 700 people in a variety of jobs about the way they are treated by their supervisors or managers. They found that between 30 and 40 percent of managers failed to give their staff due credit for performance, criticized them behind their backs to superiors and colleagues, failed to keep their promises, or gave subordinates the “silent treatment” to bring them to heel. Around 25% of bosses blamed their subordinates in an attempt to cover up their own mistakes. This isn’t unusual. As the article says:
Canadian Professor Robert Hare published findings in 2004 suggesting that sub-criminal psychopaths tend to show up more in management ranks than elsewhere, while Australian psychotherapist, Glyn Brokensha, believes that around one in 10 managers exhibit such behaviour. Meanwhile, a survey of visitors to the wonderfully-named in 2005 found that almost half of U.S. workers wanted to fire their boss and a third thought their boss should get assessed by a psychologist.
It’s probably wise to take subordinates’ psychological diagnoses of their bosses with a pinch of salt, but the point remains that boss:subordinate relationships don’t present the rosy picture that they should, if gaining organizational power depended mostly on job performance.

Very many leaders (perhaps even a majority)—defined as people holding a recognized leadership position—are simply not effective in basic leadership tasks. Some are downright poor. British workplaces, it is claimed, more often than not resemble a crumbling marriage, with the relationship between managers and their workers characterised by poor communication and low levels of trust.

Let’s be clear about the reality of life in organizations. Leadership positions ought to be held by those best fitted to hold them, in terms of job performance and leadership skills. In fact, many such positions are obtained by political influence, brown-nosing, naked competitiveness, and even simpler means: lying, taking credit for others’ success, bullying, and promising to help those who help you.

The argument about whether leaders are born or made is pretty much irrelevant. Showing excellent leadership skills, in the accepted sense, is only one of the ways to get to the top—and not usually the quickest or the most effective. Lust for power is a common human trait. As long as organizational leaders wield power over others, often unchallenged even by their peers, leadership positions will attract those for whom power is nearly all that matters.

Instead of merely accepting this, it might be better if we stood back and asked ourselves if that is how we want our society to function. If it is not, the answer lies in our own hands. You cannot stop unsuitable people wanting the top jobs. But you can refuse to appoint them. Do it often enough and organizations would be transformed.

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Robert Pearson said...

It is a tough call.
Some people are good to work for, even thought you can never work "with" them. Why? Because they have the "Will to Power" and the Entrepreneurial talent to make it happen. They will take you along farther than you can go on your own.

Why is it a tough call?
Until they become obviously corrupted, such as the Enron executives, they actually are inventing new ways to do things. It is exciting!

You have to really know what you are worth to yourself, both internally and externally. Not many people are ever tested so that they know what their core values are.

When I was in Cyprus during the Greek versus Turkish conflict I observed young British soldiers actually creating conflicts. They did this as retaliation for the thankless role of trying to be peace-keepers in a conflict that did not want any peace keepers. When the British came into the conflict, the Greeks and Turks stopped killing each other and started killing the British.

These same young British soldiers saved my life on more than one occasion. How? I was always running toward the trouble to see if I could help. If the young Brits had not stopped me I would have been the sacrificial goat. It is just my instinct to try and help. Even super-aggressive SOBs who don't deserve it, will never appreciate it and resent the heck out of the implication they need help.

4:51 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Good comment, Robert, as always.

Yes, many of these SOBs and jerks are involved in exciting things: some even create them. That's why we need civilized organizations that can curb their worst tendencies, while still provding a forum to make positive use of the energy and excitement they can bring to working life.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:50 AM  

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