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So you think you have organisational power?

What is power truly? Power is the ability to make things happen. That’s it. It really is nothing more than that. Having defined it we can show how power is lost. Power is lost when you can’t make something happen. Power is lost when you refuse to use it to make something necessary happen.

Gladiator_9Marcus Aurelius a philosopher king of the Roman Empire was a practitioner of stoicism. Stoicism, which has found popularity once again among Silicon Valley types looking to understand the nature of their ever changing and sometimes disappointing world, is quite a good philosophy for those who have power. The stoic sees that overreaction and bitterness are amongst the worst responses to life’s problems. To the stoic power waxes and wanes and there is no time for regret. You will not live for thousands of years so do the best you can with what you have now.

Before you all go running out to buy a copy of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius I’d first point out that his son, Commodus was the villain in the movie Gladiator. Proving that while with grim determination you can be accepting of life’s setbacks perhaps if you realise you have sired a debased and cruel sociopath you shouldn’t be. While Meditations is a worthy read, it might be better to find an examination of stoicism which guides you through Aurelius’s writings, instead of trying to pick your way through the decade long diary of a man living through war, pestilence, strife and awful children.

With or without stoicism how do you build your career powerbase? Your own organisational power? French and Raven writing about organisational power identified five sources of social power, that is power that can be exercised amongst people. These sources were referent, coercive, reward, legitimate and expert. Later they added two more sources of power. Informational and connectional. The French and Raven model is not comprehensive but it is close enough and as such is worth examining.

Referent power is charismatic power. People want to follow a person because they are impressed by them feel that they are successful, engaged and going somewhere. This is the power of belief where you believe in the leader that you are following. Just as you can have leadership built on charisma you can have organisations built on it too. In a referent organisation career death is in having no followers at all.

Of course, the issue with anything built on charisma is that such structures are not built to last. When the leader moves on, as charismatic leaders always do, the followers once again scatter to the wind. Can you remember a high performing team you might have wanted to be part of? Was it the team or the leader which appealed to you? If it was the leader there is a good chance that the team fell apart when that leader moved on.

Coercive power is the power to make people do as you say for fear of punishment. With the use of referent and coercive power you face the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared? Those who lack the charisma to be loved mistakenly choose to be feared. Coercive power is to be feared. It can result in sanction, loss of status and perhaps ending of employment. It also results in a lack of devotion from those around the source of coercive power.

Reward power is derived from the belief that if the follower accepts what the leader wants they may be rewarded. Do as I say and I will reward you for doing it correctly. Nothing much more to be said on reward power. It’s a profit deal.

Legitimate power is dependent on the belief that the request being made is being made by someone with the legal right to do so. This feeds back into coercive power if you refuse the requests.

Expert power, typically a technical employee power, is where power flows from the expertise and the specialist ability of the person making the decisions. It is the depth of knowledge a person has and the deference that brings from others which gives the expert their power. Reputation matters a lot with expert power and building a good reputation early in your career can grow that source of power later.

Informational power involves knowing more about what is going on than other people. In organisational structures which heavily rely on a need to know information distribution strategy it is incredibly difficult to win an argument with someone who has more facts than you do. People practicing informational power place themselves at the intersections of many different strands of information so they can gain a clearer view of the overall picture. These people tend to win the arguments on strategy and structural development of an organisation not because their ideas are better or any good but because they know more of what is currently going on.

Connectional power is the power of who you know and who people think you might know. That someone believes if they do not work with you it will get back to someone more powerful than them is connectional power at work. Connectional power can be a mirage and sometimes that is enough. The illusion of sanction motivating people to assist you.

Out of the above it is useful to reflect on where your power comes from and how it could be developed further. Do you need to switch sources or cultivate additional sources? Like any other time now is a good time to develop your sources of power no matter how great or how small they might be.  

I opened with one of the classics and I’ll end with another. Machiavelli writing in “The Prince” uses the analogy of the fox and the lion. To be the fox is to be clever. It is to recognise and navigate around traps placed for you by the circumstances you find yourself in or opponents you may face. A fox cannot defend itself from wolves but a lion can. To be the lion is to be fearless and visible to any who can see. When surrounded by wolves it is best to be the lion. When surrounded by traps it is best to be the fox. The optimum survival strategy for anyone who has power in an organisation is to recognise traps like a fox and fight off wolves like a lion.

The tragedy of power is that having spent your career to accrue it eventually you will lose it. All of it. Circumstances change, popular leaders rise and fall, ideas come into and go out of fashion but when given a choice be the fox. Be as clever as you can for as long as you can and eventually when your power wanes be the stoic. Your time on earth is limited just do the best you can.

Get yourself to OK first. Then worry about everyone else.

Sitting in a coffee shop with a large warm cup of tea as tense Christmas shoppers navigate around one another on the crowded street outside I find myself reflecting on the events of the past week at work. What power looks like and how it operates inside an organisation is a post for a different time. Lots of applied research going on now for the observant. How people feel about it all interests me. Again, a different post for a different time but feelings at work is a worthwhile topic to examine.  


Peoples feelings at work is very well researched and I have always liked Franklyn Ernst’s model. It is simple and good simple takes a lot of smart design and even more elbow grease to do well. Ernst’s OK Corral model examines how people feel about themselves and others during interactions. To the four combinations below I will add some personal commentary but I encourage you to study the model for yourself as it is deeper than it appears.   


1: I'm okay with me. I'm not okay with you.


Welcome to anger. The other person has pissed you off and you want your pound of flesh. This is where grudges are nursed. Get over it. Easier for me to type than to do but understanding the effect this other person has on you is the first step in doing something to change how it makes you feel.


That something should not involve brake cables and wire cutters.


There are more than a few skulls I want to claim, polish and display at the office but the people involved are rarely worth the mental effort one might expend on them. Never let anyone treat you poorly without them realising that behaviour is unacceptable but do not tie your happiness to their unhappiness. 


See yourself as being detached from the situation if their chaos ever spills over into your life. You are spectator to the ongoing dumpster fire they are living. You are not going to fix them or make them better people but if you ignore them it probably will drive them nuts. Petty. But funny!


2: I'm not okay with me. I'm okay with you.


Hello imposter syndrome! You will give the other party what they ask for but you will think you're a piece of shit while doing so. Why? Go figure out why you think you are a piece of shit. Is it rational? Fix it. Is it irrational? Fix that too.


No one is coming to save you and the world does not owe you a thing. Get busy being okay with you.


3: I'm okay with me. I'm okay with you.


Companies spend fortunes trying to get their people here. It is a quiet land and a contented people collaborating on shared goals. It is not going to be harmonious all the time. The place will feel like Genghis Khan’s armies rode through every now and then. Apart from that Okay me – Okay you is the aspirational end state that funds organisational development efforts in companies and has people reading the latest pop psychology books on motivation and happiness.


Strive for this. This is your destination in the work place. You will never see this consistently in your lifetime but that does not mean it is not worth working at. Here is where mutual fulfilment is.  


4: I'm not okay with me. I'm not okay with you.


If you are here and it is your job that is the cause, look for a different job.


If you are here and it is your boss that is the cause, fire your boss and go work for someone else.


Most managers like most employees or most executives are just about competent at what they do on their very best day. Anyone promoted above their level of ability becomes damaging to their employees and their organisation. Leave them. Leave them now and do so without regret.


Not okay me – Not okay you damages your soul. It is the feeling you are in a bad relationship. That bad relationship being where you are trapped in a barrel and every now and then someone opens the lid and dumps acid on you.


Not being okay with yourself in this position is fear, self-loathing all the ugly imperfections of being human. But you are human. Maybe if the stress is getting to you cut yourself a break. You cannot do it all so delegate some of what you are doing and dump the rest of it.


If work stress is not getting to you do you even care anymore? No. You have become one of those lifeless workplace zombies who can get to the office exactly on time and leave exactly on time and have a completely unmotivated and unfulfilling day watching the clock. This life of despair strikes the young as well as the old and must be a miserable existence. If you are a workplace zombie in Not okay - Not okay let me tell you that existence alone is not enough. Save yourself and select out. I am begging you to go be brilliant elsewhere where what you do matters to you. You can contribute but not where you are now.


People spend so much of their life at work they need to try and make it worthwhile. It can be frustrating, people are dumb and most of those you work with may never recognise your wit, insight, brilliance and amazing contribution but you will just have to take satisfaction that you recognise it. Hopefully at least one other person recognises it too.


In the end being okay with you begins and ends with you.