By D. Keith Denton
Executive summaryBuilding a good reputation as a competent, capable professional who is primarily interested in the good of the organization rather than gaining personal power helps create a solid base. Successful leaders use this power to focus on the welfare of the organization and to promote their own reputation. Don’t squander power and trust by doing the wrong thing.
Studies by business professor Rosabeth Moss-Kanter revealed that: “When people feel powerless, they behave in petty ways. They become rule-minded and are over-controlling because they are trying to grab hold of some little piece of the world that they do control and then over-manage it to death.”
In successful organizations, the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker because power is self-perpetuating. In any political struggle, powerful managers have advantages that allow them to gain more resources, hire or promote like-minded individuals, and buy off resistors, according to business and management author Henry Mintzberg. They may even set standards of performance to ensure that they will look good. Moreover, powerful managers surround themselves with the daunting trappings of position and achievement, especially when they have been successful. This aura makes their authority ever tougher to challenge because it has become institutionalized.
The concentration of power focuses strategy ever more tightly on the values and interests of the dominant coalition. If, for example, marketers dominate, the core strategy will come to center on marketing. Conversely, successful strategies bring respect and influence to the parties who develop them. Hence, managers have an incentive to concentrate only on the strategies that reward them, to reinforce only the goals that they believe in, and to refine only the structures that consolidate their power, Frances Milliken and Theresa K. Land wrote in Strategic Management Journal.
Business leaders who hide their emotional vulnerability fail to make use of a tool that can make them more effective, according to one executive coach.
Vivian James Rigney, founder and principal of Inside Us, an international executive coaching firm, said business leaders, like most people, wear a mask to appear strong and invulnerable. But that mask limits the tools executives can use to work with an audience. It also prevents them from listening well and communicating effectively.
Rigney told Marketwire that emotional vulnerability opens leaders up to what others say and think. Leaders can take in more information, understand situations and respond with their own qualities. He said society conditions people away from exhibiting emotional vulnerability so they project strength in schools, business settings and social conversations.
“We become intolerant of other people and shut them out,” he said. “As a result we take in less information; we have less give and take with other people; and we have fewer of our own capabilities to draw on.”
Instead, business leaders should reconnect with who they were before they put up the barriers.
“Wearing that mask burns a lot of energy,” he said. “Once they drop it, they’re able to relax and draw on more of their qualities than they’ve allowed themselves before and above all, feel much stronger and more congruent. They become more human and that makes them better leaders.”
Certainly, it seems reasonable that the organization should empower the departments and individuals that are best able to handle the contingencies most critical for its survival. It also is clear that if the environment changes to make a less critical department more important, it may be sensible to accord more discretion to that department. Unfortunately, power begets power, and those at the top might be unmotivated to give up their authority. Given the narrowness of existing routines and world views, top managers may not even recognize that the environment has changed, especially if the organization continues to perform adequately or if it has an admirable track record. Only in the long run, after the problems created by simplicity and stagnation have shown up, will an organization consider reallocating power. Even then, such a change most likely will occur after a new CEO has been hired, according to researchers that include Mintzberg, Peter H. Friesen and Danny Miller’s “Stale in the Saddle: CEO Tenure and the Match between Organization and Environment,” from Management Science.
In thriving organizations, power usually will gravitate toward those dominant departments and individuals that have been associated with past successes; it will recede from others. Such inertia favors existing goals, strategies and structures that, in turn, reinforce the power of the dominant coalition.
We all seek anything that gives us a greater sense of power and prestige. Chinese nobility and other elite always jealously guarded scarce resources like written language because it gave them some power over others. Jargon serves the same role for modern day professional and technical people. You cannot take it away if you do not understand it. Readers of magical oracles have power because they and only they possess the secret knowledge.
John Dick, chief information officer of Regions Financial Corp., said: “I will often ask the most junior person in the room what option they think is best, and frequently I’ll go with that direction. It’s a matter of reinforcing to them that they usually have more information than me, and if they’ve done a good job thinking it through, then they’re in a good position to make the call. It demonstrates that I value not just their opinions but also their thought process and assertive decision making.”
The message for leaders is simple. All people to some degree crave power and prestige. We have an innate need to feel powerful. Anything that makes us feel powerless is a destructive force. Once acquired, power not only will be protected but also enlarged, if possible. Power is not in a steady state of equilibrium. If you do not have it, you want it. If you have it, you want more, and it takes extraordinary self-control for someone to give up their “turf.”
Research on product development and operations divisions by David C. McClelland and David H. Burnham has shown that 73 percent of the better managers had a stronger need for power than a need to be liked, as compared with only 22 percent of the poorer managers, who tended to be what they called affiliative managers, or those whose strongest drive is to be liked. The manager with a high need to be liked is exactly the one who wants to stay on good terms with everybody. Therefore, that manager is most likely to make exceptions for particular needs. The researchers’ findings and sociological theory both argue that the person whose need for affiliation is high does not make a good manager.
However, effective managers are not the ones who seek power for its own sake or for their selfish ends. Successful relationships thrive when both parties reveal exactly who they are, say exactly what they mean, and use the same standards for self and others. An honest leader creates a “safe space” for working relationships to flourish where people work together to achieve similar and collaborative goals. It means creating conditions that allow both parties to know the other is looking out for his or her best interests, Eric de Nijs wrote in American Society for Training & Development.
Research has shown that a high power motive needs to be balanced by high inhibition, where power is used more in an altruistic way and is exercised on behalf of someone or something. Those that use power impulsively often are ruder to other people, drink too much, try to exploit others sexually, and collect symbols of personal prestige such as fancy cars or big offices. On the other hand, individuals who are both high in power and in control are those who are more institution-minded. They are the ones who tend to get elected to more offices, to control their drinking and to have a desire to serve others.
McClelland and Burnham’s research shows the better managers were what they called institutional managers who were high in power motivation, low in affiliation motivation, and high in inhibition. They care about institutional power and use it to stimulate their employees to be more productive. On the other hand, managers who are concerned about being liked tend to have subordinates who feel that they have little personal responsibility, that organizational procedures are not clear, and that they have little pride in their work group. Affiliative managers make so many ad hoc decisions that they almost totally abandon orderly procedures. Their disregard for procedure leaves employees feeling weak, irresponsible, and without a sense of what might happen next, of where they stand in relation to their manager, or even of what they ought to be doing.
In contrast, managers who are motivated by a personal need for power are somewhat more effective. They are able to create a greater sense of responsibility in their divisions and, above all, a greater team spirit. These types of people can be thought of as managerial equivalents to successful tank commanders such as Gen. George Patton, whose own daring inspired admiration in his troops. Nevertheless, managers motivated purely by the need for personal power are not good institution builders. Their subordinates are loyal to them as individuals rather than to the institution. Often when a personal power manager leaves, disorganization soon follows. The strong group spirit that the manager personally has inspired deflates. The subordinates do not know what to do for themselves.
It is the institutional manager who normally is the most successful in creating an effective work climate. In this situation, subordinates think that they have more responsibility. Morale is also high because they produce the greatest sense of organizational clarity and team spirit. When such a manager leaves, he or she can be more readily replaced because employees tend to be loyal to the institution rather than to a particular person.
Power, when used within the proper context, creates better morale in subordinates. The use of power is essential to good management. Managers must be interested in using influence in a controlled way. This does not imply that they are or should be authoritarian in action. In fact, it appears that powermotivated managers make their subordinates feel strong rather than weak. A true authoritarian in action would have the opposite effect, since such an approach tends to make people feel weak and powerless.
Managers who use their power for institutional purposes rather than for personal reasons tend to be more organizational-minded. They like work and have a high need to achieve by becoming more efficient. They like to see the results obtained in less time or with less effort. Managers who have a need for institutional power often like the discipline of work and are willing to sacrifice some of their own selfinterest for the welfare of the organization. They often think that people who work hard and sacrifice for the good of the organization should and will get a just reward for their effort. Research has shown that they tend to be more mature and less egotistical. McClelland and Burnham point out that these types of managers are less defensive and more willing to seek advice from experts.
The good manager in a large company does not necessarily have to have a high need for achievement, although there must be plenty of that motive somewhere within the organization. The top managers do, however, have a high need for power and an interest in influencing others, and both needs are greater than their interest in being liked by people. The manager’s concern for power should be socialized-controlled so that the institution as a whole, not only the individual, benefits.
Today’s work climate demands that most people feel powerful, in control, and be willing to help carry the organization toward greater competitiveness. This often entails redistributing power from the few to the many. Whenever
redistributing or managing power, expect resistance and irrational fears. Managing power requires that you be able to both push and pull.
Setting high standards and expectations that demand cooperation pushes people toward change. It can be a dangerous but effective step to let people experience defeat because it often makes them more receptive. Pushing people forward is neither the only nor probably the best way to change; sometimes you can pull them forward. Showing employees what others are doing can be a good beginning. Giving incentives often can persuade others to take the next step. You also can pull people toward change. Openly sharing information and explaining why something is needed often seems to help people keep moving forward. When you are “in” on things, you just feel less powerless and more in control.
Perhaps few other companies have been able to do this as well as W.L. Gore and Associates Inc., where during the last 20 years revenues have grown at 26 percent a year. Although the company has been around for 28 years, it has no titles. There is very little of the trapping of traditional power. Employees simply refer to themselves as associates. There are no bosses, only sponsors. One of the company’s four principles is selfcommitment. Founder Bill Gore stated that everyone makes his own commitments — and keeps them. He believes no one can make commitments for you, that you must make them yourself. At W.L. Gore, associates are expected to take the initiative to identify opportunities that match their skills and gain support for commitments, reported Charles Ehin for Journal for Quality and Participation.
John Giovale, an associate at W.L. Gore, noted that when he joined the company he was invigorated and perplexed about what to commit to. But he discovered that it meant he would need to inform himself so he could make good commitments. Once he informed himself, invariably new information would surface that caused him to re-craft his commitments. He soon realized this process involved seeking input from others and obtaining their buy-in. It was this buy-in that was important for getting things done. He said that if you make your own commitments, it is easier to see yourself as the source of results and take ownership in the outcome.
Power issues are handled differently at W.L. Gore. Since people are expected to make and keep their own commitments, it is harder to use personal power to force cooperation. Rather, associates must convince colleagues that it is worth their time and energy. All this depends on how well one can create confidence in the value to be undertaken. It is earned authority rather than a formal one and one that tries to focus more on institutional needs rather than personal power needs.
Providing easy access to information can be a powerful motivator for many. Eliminating complicated reporting and red tape that makes it difficult to get information will increase everyone’s ability to feel powerful. Something as simple as showing others that you sincerely are interested in what they say increases your ability to influence the direction others take. People tend to respect leaders that listen to them. One way to get trust involves assuming positive intent, suspending judgment, looking out for the other person’s best interests, giving without condition, offering forgiveness, being at peace with what is, and providing support and safety in times of risk and failure, according to de Nijs.
Communicate openly. Companies with high trust levels give employees unvarnished information about company performance, explain the rationale behind management decisions and also are unafraid of sharing bad news and admitting mistakes. Companies can’t stop there. To create a high-trust organization, executives also must seek employee input for improving the work climate and act on those suggestions. Make a point to do a good job of communicating the company’s business goals and explaining to employees what their role is in achieving those goals.
Instilling high standards has many of the same effects as ensuring open access to information. Both can be good tools, but this assumes you have your own base of managerial power. True power cannot be given by position; it must be earned, and it requires a bit of finesse. People admire self-confidence, but only to a point. Self-confidence, rather than being overconfident or conceited, is a lot like being in good physical shape but not muscle bound. One is attractive, the other merely humorous. To avoid overdoing it, build on your strengths while focusing on their needs, not yours.
Telling people they have done a good job can begin to make people feel powerful, but it takes more. The need for power is intertwined with other needs. Everyone needs to feel a sense of control and order as much as they need power. Leadership author John Gardner said: “Leaders can conceive and articulate organizational goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations. They can carry people above their conflicts that can tear a society or team apart. They create pursuit of objectives worthy of our best efforts.” Leaders must make it clear that solving a goal is not just up to them. Leaders should also exhibit confidence in their subordinates’ ability to do the job. Feeling good about your ability creates a sense of powerfulness. Only weak leaders will resort to threats, dependence and despair. Great leaders make us think that we are needed and that we can make a worthwhile contribution.
Primarily, give rewards for what people can do and spend less time on punishing people for what they cannot do. Use praise, write a letter or seek their advice. Nothing makes people feel more powerful than having their opinion sought. They even can be asked to review your work or conclusions. The quality of your work may not be improved, but it will make your workforce feel more powerful and important.
Rick Davidson, chief information officer of Manpower Inc., said that as you move higher up in the organization, your actions gain more meaning and impact. Therefore, you need to be true to your core, which is shaped by your values. He maintains that it’s important to be honest and transparent and to establish trust between management and employees. People follow leaders because the leader can take them places they can’t go on their own. And if you violate that trust, people won’t follow you anymore.
Davidson also said that many of our jobs have stressful moments where decisions have to be made, and sometimes the right decision is more challenging. People are expecting you to do the right thing, and you absolutely have to, even if it’s difficult.
“When people think of trust, they often think about what’s legal and whether or not someone is lying to them,” said Ilene Gochman, organization measurement practice director for Watson Wyatt. “But that’s not necessarily true. A lack of trust can also be fostered by incompetence, a lack of direction, or a sense that the organization is floating.”
In other words, trust is the result of countless management decisions made over a long period that help employees feel secure about their own — and the organization’s — future, Shari Caudron wrote for Workforce Management in 2002.
Building a good reputation as a competent, capable professional who is interested primarily in the good of the organization rather than gaining personal power helps create a power base. Practice integrity in all the things you do. Even the smallest acts: Don’t have someone report that you are not there when the phone rings if you are, indeed, in the office. Even the seemingly least important acts, like jumping a turnstile at the train station when there isn’t a soul around, have an impact. Integrity is not just exhibited when convenient; it must become habitual.
Powerful leaders must focus on the welfare of the organization, all while promoting their own reputation. According to business and administration researchers Petra E. Snowden and Richard A. Gorton, if there is a high level of trust, the leader can expect that members of the group will express their feelings, concerns, opinions and thoughts more openly. Conversely, if trust is low, members are more likely to be evasive, competitive, devious, defensive, or uncertain in their actions with one another.
No one will assume you are capable. You have to prove it. Informal leaders promote their own expertise by helping others become aware of their abilities and knowledge. It must be done in a tasteful manner, and it requires that you do your homework. Make it a point to be knowledgeable about the latest advances in one’s field. Have a good grasp of the facts and figures being discussed. Keep statistics on current activities. Keep accurate up-to-date files. Prepare and display graphs and other visual aids so it is easy for others to understand.
People want to know you make good decisions. Show that you have explored the problem thoroughly. A good reputation as a problem solver is one of the best ways to enhance your power. Since shared information is power, acquire information by making contacts with other organizational personnel. Find out what is going on in the company. When you have acquired the information, share it with others when it can be beneficial to them. Use information to help other employees and your power increases. Use it to build better relations.
Above all, do not leave a vacuum where people are left to feel powerless because this only invites trouble. Letting people hoard resources and exercise personal power may have worked in times where the few decided for the many, but today it seems decidedly archaic. We must face our most basic needs in a positive and worthwhile manner that seeks solutions for the betterment of the organization.
D. Keith Denton is a professor of management at Missouri State University. He earned his Ph.D. at Southern Illinois University in 1982. Denton has had more than 150 articles and 14 books published. He has been a practicing management consultant and university professor for more than 20 years.