Managers: You’ve got more power than you think

We live in an age which idealizes managers, yet never have these managers felt so powerless. Whatever their level in the hierarchy, they are confronted with increasing pressure in terms of control, reporting, senseless procedures, all resulting in a loss of autonomy which is immensely frustrating. As one of them was telling me recently “I have a superb company car, a personal assistant, a huge office in a very nice location in a great city, I am paid handsomely, feeling like Zeus on the tope of the Olympus, and yet when I want to buy a copier I need to ask the head office, and it’s not getting better. I am losing autonomy as time passes. All I’m doing more and more is filling Excel sheets.”

To a large extent, the sense of losing out against the organisation, expressed by so many managers, junior as well as senior, is the result of a failure to deal with power.

Power has a bad reputation in business. Like politics. “It’s politics” is a common way to dismiss a phenomenon managers fail to really understand or that somehow seems irrational. Power is some kind of evil tool that maligned people use to advance their agenda. No good manager should touch it.

Managers have almost no political education. They are educated in the belief that an organisation is a purely mechanical machine, which only works on data in input, and products and services as outputs. They believe that it will be enough for them to do a good job, and to fit at the right place, to be successful. A few years later, when the reality of the organization has sunk in, they switch to the opposite side of the spectrum, from naivety to cynicism. “It’s all about politics.”

In that, managers forget that an organization is a collection of human, and when it becomes large, politics is the way the organisation is regulated. It cannot be otherwise. An organisation is not a machine, with a definite set of physical rules. Certainly, at some extreme, politics becomes too important, and the organisation loses sight of its purpose, but this is a pathology; it doesn’t have to be. In fact, politics is how you get things done in a complex organisation as it is constantly defining priorities and allocating scarce resources (such as time, attention and of course money). Politics is how you get a coalition of people to support a particular goal at the expense of another one. Politics is how you solve the inherent conflict at the heart of the resource allocation process, which is: if you allocate x resources to project A, these resources won’t be available for projects B, C and D. Hence the question is: on which basis should this allocation be made? The complexity of the organisation is such that no absolute rule can be set, such as “Innovation should be a priority” or “Value creation should be a priority” because there are too many ambiguities.

Ambitious managers, and in particular those who want to make their organisation more innovative, should seriously consider gaining political skills. It is the condition of their success. Without power, they won’t be able to initiate and drive meaningful change within their organisation and will be left bitter and frustrated. Power is the tool of change.

But how do you acquire power? Often, managers explain that at their level, there is not much they can do. Perhaps their boss could do something? This is missing one of the important attributes of power: it is intangible, and it can be created even in seemingly unfavorable situations.

I will tell you a thing or two about power (Source: Wikipedia)

Lyndon Johnson

A good historical example is given by Lyndon Johnson’s career in the US Senate as told by Johnson biographer Robert Caro. In this book Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate, Caro tells how Johnson managed to transform the US Senate from a do-nothing body into a transformative body. The Senate was created by the fathers of the US constitution to make sure nothing would happen, as a buffer against both the risk of autocracy from the president and the excesses of the masses. When Johnson arrived at the Senate, very few laws had been passed despite pressing issues such as discrimination. Despite being a junior senator, in just a few years, Johnson managed to become influential and ended up majority leader (in effect ‘president’ of the Senate), triggering a flurry of laws that transformed America. Johnson’s tale is a lesson on how to create power (to exert influence) out of nothing. While there is no recipe, Johnson worked his way by cajoling, rewarding, motivating, inspiring and also threatening, millimeter by millimeter, to get senators’ commitment to his agenda of change. In short, he created a social movement within the Senate, with significant results.

Managers can learn from Johnson. Power and influence are gained by looking at whatever resources one has, to be used to get somebody’s commitment to even a small step that can create momentum. Create a map of stakeholders and think hard about how to convince them to get on board. Never ask for too much, make sure what is asked is affordable for the person you ask to. Generate goodwill as a currency, and don’t ask to be paid back just yet. Play the long game. These are just a few empirical rules that managers can mobilize to become smarter at the organisation game.

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