In the last entry, I noted that those who craved extreme power are usually portrayed as one dimensional in their villainy and whose use of power was inevitably unidirectional. This doesn’t happen very often in real life – thank goodness – and probably even less likely within organizations (one hopes). However, in modern organizations, most managers with real powers do resemble the descriptions of Slytherin House members in the Harry Potter books; by that I mean most managers, especially at the top levels, make their way (acquire their power) through their network of connections and mutual self-interests.
It is not without good reason that the expression “going postal” has unfortunately gained staying power. I don’t have research evidence to back up this assertion, but: How many people in your circle of friends and colleagues actually love where they work? While the majority do not “go postal,” frustration at work places has been mounting. Recall the recent incident with a Jet Blue flight attendant – he told a passenger off, grabbed some cans of beer and exited the plane via the emergency chute – and by venting in a nonlethal form became a cult hero. “Going Jet Blue” already appears in the internet UrbanDictionary (beware! Not an uplifting site).
Why do I mention this? and Why do I think that Slytherins have taken over? Especially in the context of my advocacy of Appreciative Inquiry? I have ideals, but I am not blind to reality. Most of this organizational frustration affects people working in medium to large organizations. It doesn’t mean that the smaller enterprises are free from abusive managerial power demonstrations, but in general, large organizations share similar management problems. And the Slytherin orientation largely applies to the top tier of executives and CEOs; it is rare that people would move to that level without demonstrating that they have similar lineage of schooling and have moved around in the “right” circle of friends and colleagues. Remember Slytherin’s emphasis the importance of pure blood, and Hogwart’s Sorting Hat’s stanza
“You’ll make your real friends,
Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends.”
- From the “sorting hat’s song” in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
While extreme-based power does not course through organization corridors unchecked, and certainly not for long, there are plenty of managers who would use a combination of secrecy, fear, innuendo, concealed threats, and half-truths to subtly (and often not so subtly) move subordinates to do the work, and to grow his/her power base for the sub-unit s/he manages. I sometimes think that a controlling boss is worse than a downright nasty one, the latter being one I have more legitimacy to rebel against or fight. However, if one feels powerless in one’s job or choice of jobs, then, it doesn’t much matter how bad the boss may be.
The large R&D organization with which I have some familiarity belongs to the Department of Energy (DOE). Its organizational structure is heavily top-down, with each of the senior managers sitting on his/her silo-like mini empire. I say “silo” precisely because each director has little incentive to consider working with others to create some synergy, especially when the top leader is but a weak and thoroughly harassed bureaucrat who would concede to anything desired by the DOE. In turn the structure of DOE is itself profoundly dysfunctional; everyone from middle management up seems to be only about keeping and growing his/her pot of money and kingdom of grantees. But back to the local lab. One particular senior manager (let’s call him Tom) owns the organization mission of compliance for safety and security. Tom is a very smart and decent man. But what he does, what he feels compelled to do, is: hold his cards very close (secrecy); make sure that his empire gets high performance reviews (bonus this year and more budget next year); focus on enforcing all the compliance rules (more power); all to the detriment of scientific research. Where scientists might devote 80% of their time to actual research work, they actually need to devote 50% of the work week to filling out forms, attending meetings, watching their surroundings. If an innocent accident happened, there would be a “critique” (remember Communist China?) whose meetings could go on for weeks before making recommendations. And often the recommendations would become more rules to be followed, even if DOE doesn’t demand them. Not even a dog would go looking for such ways to further restrict himself!
So, Tom does this, in the name of assuring good safety and security performance. He does hear and seems to understand the needs of other senior managers whose missions are scientific work. He makes appropriately sympathetic noises (half-truths) about their needs and desires but science continues to be irrelevant to his real mission. He courts good relationships with the director (cunning) and with the director’s DOE bosses (very cunning). And since DOE’s annual review emphasizes safety and security, Tom feels vindicated by winning good marks, after all they’re for the good of the whole organization. Instead of taking on an advocate’s role on behalf of the whole organization to fend off the more foolish DOE’s demands, he not only goes along with them, but actually augments them when it suits his real mission. It’s all about his real mission (him). In a fragmented organization where separate silos do not have incentives to complement each other, Tom’s priorities and methods are understandable. But not forgivable. In the face of what he could have achieved for the whole, he chooses to use his powers for his own good. And he knows it, as do the scientists. Jet Blue, here we come.
Most managers are not purely evil or bullying as portrayed in fiction. In reality, they have more complex personalities, behavior and motivation. However, the archetypal descriptions do give us some rules of thumb by which to gauge our work environment. Speaking of rules of thumb, Robert Sutton of Stanford University wrote a book titled, “The No Asshole Rule,” about spotting assholes (those who use bullying power):
- Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
- Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his/her venom at people who are less powerful (Mr. Sutton’s emphasis) rather than at those people who are more powerful? (pg 9)
A manager doesn’t have to scream, yell, or use nasty words to make subordinates feel oppressed or enervated. Sarcastic tone or innuendos would do just fine. But I think the most telling is when managers behave very differently depending on the power status of the audience. So, while these rules may be written specifically about “assholes,” the answers to these yardstick questions don’t have to be just yes/no; different degrees under “yes” would be indicative.
A simple example on a small scale illustrates my point: A manager who deliberately keeps someone waiting way past the appointed time is being a bully. I have known managers who actually didn’t do anything serious, perhaps signing some papers, or reading non-urgent documents, while keeping people waiting for another 15 minutes or beyond. To what end, other than throwing around managerial weight, just because they could? Most of them use this power to reinforce their importance (power), probably without thinking, not realizing that they are being bullying. Inevitably, behind such display of power is a sense of insecurity. In such cases, the bullying behavior probably is the least troublesome; more insidious is the accumulated effects of various power abuses on the person at receiving end.
Is there ever a need to use bullying power?
I came across this fable, “The legend of the Two Wolves;” I really like it.
“An elder was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me; it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil – he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person too.” They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old man simply replied, ‘THE ONE YOU FEED.’”
Harry Potter’s first choice was to disarm his opponents (“expelliarmus”) whereas Voldemort’s was to kill (“Avada Kedavra”), be they enemies or innocent bystanders. So, my problem with a lot of managers is that they don’t make distinctions in applying their powers; they don’t think hard enough to realize and grasp the long-range impact of the decisions they make on people’s will to contribute, and even on their lives, both inside and outside of the organizations.
Today’s entry is downright depressing. My apologies; sometimes, I need to vent a little. I’ll relate some positive images next time. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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