When power in the workplace transmutes into bullying, we have a problem. A big problem.
Probably the most-acknowledged form of ‘power’ is that of hierarchical authority, the reporting-relationship between supervisor and supervisee, ‘boss’ and ‘worker’. The boss gives the orders, the worker must obey – or supposedly should, at any rate.
There’s always potential for conflict in that type of mutually-dependent relationship, but as this article shows, hierarchical power is not in itself the only source of the problem:
Power alone does not corrupt.
Researchers Nathanael Fast of the University of Southern California and Serena Chen of the University of California, Berkeley, found in a series of studies that it is actually the combination of power and incompetence that can result in bad boss behavior. The paper will be published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.
“It’s not just power that corrupts people and it’s not just incompetence either,” said Fast, the lead author of the study. “It’s the pairing of the two that leads to aggression.”
To understand what’s going on, and what to do about it – especially when things go wrong – we need first to be thinking side-wise somewhat.
Power is not the problem. In simple physics terms, power is the ability to do work – and ‘doing work’ is what we want to happen in business! The real problem is more subtle, and stems from a single, very human yet highly addictive delusion: the belief that we can ‘export’ our own inner doubts and discomforts onto others. Hence, in practice, the all-too-common belief that power is the ability to avoid work…
Hence, as noted elsewhere:
Many of the common concepts of power – especially in business – are so close to perfectly wrong in a functional sense that it’s amazing any work happens at all.
And that’s why, without apparent warning, excitement and enthusiasm can fade away to nothing, the ‘Monday blues’ become prevalent again, and it’s back to the usual bitching and backbiting, the joys of office politics…
The results can be seen in almost every organisation: frustration, inefficiency and ineffectiveness, loss of motivation and morale, lost opportunities and, for commercial organisations, lost profits. It hurts. It hurts everyone.
To make sense of this, and what to do about it, we need first to remember that in human terms ‘work’ has a very broad range of meanings. Digging a ditch is work; but so is solving technical problem, managing a team, keeping calm amidst the chaos, and so on. One simple way to understand all these different meanings is to categorise them in terms of the classical ‘four dimensions’:
- physical work
- mental work
- relational work
- aspirational work
The latter (sometimes also called ‘spiritual’ work) is perhaps more difficult to recognise as ‘work’, but it’s about creating a personal sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of self and of relationship with ‘that which is greater than self’. In business we see this expressed as morale, commitment, innovation, creativity and so on, and also as connection to the enterprise via brand or reputation. It takes a lot of work to build a brand, trust, reputation; but it can be destroyed through a single moment’s carelessness – and vigilance against that kind of carelessness takes a lot of work too. All of these are work – so in business (and elsewhere) we need the power to do that work. Hence, in turn, responsibility – the ‘response-ability’ to choose appropriate responses to the conditions, to do the work that is required at each moment.
Yet all work is hard at times – so it will often seem easier to dump that work onto someone else. This is particularly true of relational and aspirational work – in other words, the difficulties of dealing with other people, and of dealing with ourselves. Hence all too many attempts and opportunities – especially in business – to ‘export’ that work to others, dumping on others in ways that prevent them from dumping it back. But it can’t succeed, because by definition it’s our own work: to use a rather crude metaphor, dumping it on others is exactly like demanding that they should eat for us, sleep for, go to the toilet for us. The impossible demand creates frustration, anger, which in turn feeds resentment, and so on. And since the direct path to return the work to where it belongs – must belong - has been blocked by the ‘export’, the only apparent option is to ‘counter-export’ via another path – such as put-downs, or the classic slave’s tactic of ‘work to rule’. Which also doesn’t work because the needed work still does not get done. And spirals ever deeper and deeper towards uncontrollable chaos…
Power is necessary to do the work. The real problem is not power itself, but feelings of powerlessness masquerading as ‘power’.
That’s where – and why – reporting-hierarchies can so easily go wrong. Their actual function is one of coordination, to simplify communication – relational work – and decision-making – mental and aspirational work. But the asymmetric relationship between ‘boss’ and ‘worker’ also provides a seemingly perfect mechanism for ‘export’ of any feelings of powerlessness in the boss: her position of authority over others seemingly ‘entitles’ her to dump on those others in ways where they have no ‘right’ of return.
The real problem here is that such dumping will seem to work, for a short while; but since it doesn’t actually work – because those feelings of powerlessness are internal to the boss alone, and cannot actually be resolved by anyone else – the same issues will and must return. All that’s happened is that that the boss has in effect manufactured the same feelings of powerless in others – which means that the total available ‘ability to do work’ has gone down. Hence, as noted in that study, “it’s not just [hierarchical] power that corrupts people, and it’s not just incompetence either; it’s the pairing of the two that leads to aggression”.
In effect there’s a spectrum of ‘unconstrained incompetence’ versus ‘unconstrained competence’ – from destructive dysfunctionality to full functionality – that also matches well with ‘ability to work’ in the five Cynefin domains:
- Actively dysfunctional (‘power-over’), “prop self up by putting other down” (minimal to no ‘ability to do work’ – Cynefin ‘Disorder’ domain)
- Passively dysfunctional (‘power-under’), “offload responsibility without engagement” (operating within rules only – ‘Simple’ domain)
- ‘Best practice’ (capable of analysis, some adaptation within rules – ‘Complicated’ domain)
- Relinquish control, “enterprise supports individual difference” (permits adaptation within guidelines, heuristics – ‘Complex’ domain)
- Relinquish command, “individual committed to enterprise”, “wholeness-responsibility”(permits principle-based adaptation to inherent uncertainty – ‘Chaotic’ domain)
Perhaps the key point here is that dumping on others is addictive – perhaps the most addictive ‘drug’ ever known. And it all comes down to a single choice in every moment:
- either everyone wins from what we do;
- or everyone loses – including us
So despite the common view that “the only way to win is to make someone else lose”, there is no ‘win/lose’ – it’s an illusion. It’s actually a form of lose/lose in which a short-term sense of ‘winning’ conceals the fact that even the supposed ‘winner’ loses from the transaction in the longer term. In every transaction, the only way that works is when everyone wins.
And yes, that’s quite a long way from the usual view of business as ‘the drive to beat the competition’ and so on. But that’s the challenge: find a way to ‘win’ in which everyone wins. Otherwise everyone loses – of which bullying at work is just one of many, many examples…
So what do we do about it?
The key is to tackle the delusions: at every opportunity, emphasise and demonstrate that win/lose doesn’t work:
- propping self up by putting others down doesn’t work
- offloading responsibility onto others doesn’t work
- the only way that works is when everyone wins
(Incidentally, ‘lose/win’ – putting self down to prop other up, or taking on responsibility from others inappropriately – also doesn’t work, for much the same reasons. It often seems praiseworthy at the time, but actually feeds the same addictions in others – and often in self, too – and can easily make things worse by feeding a codependent cycle. We need to respect the no-doubt good intentions behind the ‘lose/win’, but we need to challenge it just as much as the more obviously dysfunctional ‘win/lose’ behaviours.)
Tools such as the SEMPER diagnostic/metric can help in this, providing a mechanism to monitor ‘ability to do work’ in many different ways, and identifying appropriate tactics to address each specific type of problem. (For more details, see sempermetrics.com and the book “SEMPER and SCORE: enhancing enterprise effectiveness”.) You’ll also find a great deal of practical advice in this ‘manifesto’ on power and responsibility in the workplace.
But ultimately it’s our responsibility to challenge every source of power-problems – in ourselves perhaps even more than in others. Because if we don’t, those power-problems such as bullying can destroy the entire enterprise.
(Thanks to Sarah Runge for suggesting this topic.)