Friday, March 1, 2013

Organizational Mythology #6 - Power is bad


Mention the word, and most folks run for the hills.  It can conjure up terrible images of despots, tyrants and megalomaniacal leaders who are mad with the stuff.   There's no doubt about that ... history is replete with people who have become crazed by their desires to rule the world.
But hold on for a minute.  Quite often, the many suffer because of the reputations of a few. 

Consider this:

Power also provides the energy that inspires athletes, researchers, students, philanthropists, theologians, architects, and brilliant musicians.  For many, inspiration spells power, and it is the source of determination in the face of loss, discipline in the face of struggle and downright grit to stay the course. 

Power is the motive force behind the good and the bad.  Power in itself is neutral, but in the hands of leaders who are driven by the wrong motives, power can be destructive.  Yet organizations cannot exist without power.  Here's why: No matter how large they may be, organizations have limited resources.  Organizations cannot be 'all things to all people.'  That's where the influence of power comes to bear.

Why is power necessary in organizations?

“If everyone agrees on what to do and how to do it, there is no need to exercise power to attempt to influence others” (Pfeffer, p. 176).  But rare is the organization where everyone agrees on everything!

If an organization is to have an identity, it must be focused on a goal. This is power of design. “There are politics involved in innovation and change...” (Pfeffer, p. 12). While design or purpose can be achieved democratically, not everyone in the organization has the same perspective, buy-in and commitment to an end goal. 
If an organization is to accomplish something, it requires some kind of structure to direct the energy flow.  This is the power of decision.  “Because the need for power arises only under circumstances of disagreement, one of the personal attributes of powerful people is the willingness to engage in conflict with others” (Pfeffer, p. 176).  Someone has to make "the call", someone has to take the risk of the decision. 
If an organization is to work together, it requires some kind of laws or policies to guide those who want to effectively participate and to eliminate those who do not want to cooperate.  This is the power of discipline.

Organizations cannot escape the motive force of power ... but they can influence how power is used.

  1. Leaders can be trained to understand the natural human desire for freedom. 
  2. Good managers can provide models of the good use of power in organizations.
  3. 360 feedback models and other tools can be used to provide insight into how others perceive their use of power.
Ultimately, the way a leader uses power becomes more and more obvious as the years go by.  Good leaders are known for inclusion, dictatorial leaders become known for their dreaded ways.  And while the latter may "get things done," over time organizations seek leaders who build, rather than destroy, organizational power among the many. 

Whether you lead a team of 3 or 3,000, self-assessment of how you use power is never a waste of time.   After all, none of us wants to perpetuate the notion that all power is bad. 

Jeffrey Pfeffer, (1992) Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations.  Harvard Business School Press.



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