The Elixir of Power
This essay is written in part for those who have not yet been promoted into managerial positions, but who might be, one day. It is also written for those of us who have acquired some authority in this world and may have unwittingly become intoxicated by the “elixir of power.”
Reports by the Gallup Organization (2013, 2017) indicate that about 30% of American “workers” — this includes most of us, not just people who work in factories — are committed to the strategic objectives and missions of their employers. The Gallup refers to those who are committed as “engaged,” and the rest (the other 70%) as either “disengaged” or “actively disengaged.” Their definition of “engagement” is broken down into twelve elements. Most of those elements pertain to the question of whether or not people are engaged in an ongoing “conversation” aimed at the “good of the business.” To the extent that they are taken seriously in these conversations, and to the extent that their spoken words “count,” they are not only engaged, but “empowered.” Gallup’s research provides compelling evidence that when people are empowered in this way, businesses are more profitable.
One might conclude from this that managers are not getting a maximum return on the assets entrusted to them if they do not “empower” their subordinates — if they don’t include them, up to their levels of competency, in these ongoing conversations. There is a commonsense term for not empowering people up to their levels of competency in a decision-making process: Micromanagement. Most of us dislike being micromanaged. We view it as a sign of disrespect for our competence. And rightly so.
Now, almost any manager or supervisor who works for a corporation can recite the liturgy of “empowerment,” and assure you that he or she is the kind of person who empowers subordinates. In this writer’s experience, after four decades as a management consultant and change agent, a lot more than thirty percent of them can sing this tune. So, it’s reasonable to ask, how is it that only about thirty percent of the American workforce is “engaged” (or “empowered”) according to Gallup, with its hundreds of thousands of data points? Why do so many of these managers, who appear to understand the difference, choose to be “bosses” rather than “leaders,” to “tell” rather than “sell”? It is reasonable to ask, as will be soon revealed, whether this is even a conscious choice. Or are other dynamics, barely visible to most of us, at work here? Let’s examine the matter more closely…
Since engagement implies two-way communication — conversations if you will — let’s take a look at what conversations are. In a pioneering paper of a subdiscipline of sociology known as “conversational analysis,” Sachs, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974) noted that people value turns at talk enough to “wait in line,” as it were, to speak in a conversation. They observed that, in casual conversations, it is overwhelmingly the case that only one person speaks at a time. They observed that the transition from one speaker to another sometimes involves temporary, though brief overlaps (two or more persons speaking at a time). These overlaps are routinely repaired through the use of a number of turn-taking rules, which the authors made the focal point of their paper. The key point for present purposes is that while one person is speaking, the others are waiting to take their turns at talk. If we define “effort” as an investment of time and energy, then at the least, waiting in line for counts as effort, since it clearly takes time. We only invest effort in things we value. Thus, since people routinely wait for their turns at talking, the right to speak must be a “good” — an end in itself. We all value the right to speak. If we did not, we wouldn’t participate in conversations.
The right to speak wouldn’t be a right at all if not for the obligation of some other person or persons to listen to us. When we are promoted, the number of people who are required to listen to us increases. Suddenly, we feel more “room” to say what we think. And perhaps more rewarding than all of this “room” is the display by others — especially our immediate subordinates — of deference to us. They show this by not interrupting us when we speak, and by not complaining when we interrupt them. They account to us when we require it, but rarely try to make us account for ourselves to them. They do things for us, often without even being told or even asked. They follow our orders. So, when we’re promoted, along with our new office comes all this deference. We tend to forget that it isn’t about us. It’s about that office we occupy. Of course, we’d like to think it’s about us. For this reason, many of us get a “buzz” from the elixir of power. It can be quite addictive.
It is easy to become intoxicated. Some of the people that work for us try to read our minds so that they can give us what we want without being asked or told. We compare them — to their benefits — to others, who don’t read our minds as well. They become our “favorites.” On the other hand, we may get annoyed when someone disagrees with us, especially if it happens more than once. Maybe we become so frustrated that we take actions that diminish their career prospects. Maybe we even try to get them out of the organization. Others notice this. To survive, they avoid disagreeing with us. After a while, no one disagrees anymore. Now, we have to make all the important decisions ourselves. Now our organization’s decisions are limited by the quality of our personal decisions, itself determined by the limits of our intelligence and information, plus — if and when we choose to listen to them — the inputs of our favorites. This might work out, if we knew all the answers to everything, if we were gods…or Steve Jobs.
But what about the ones who have stopped trying to contribute, since we don’t respect them enough to listen to them, or who fear our ire in the event that they disagree with us? Do they lose sight of the “cathedral” we’re supposed to be building? Do they default to just “laying bricks for a paycheck”? Do they stop at an AM/PM on the way home from work, buy a lotto ticket, and offer up a silent prayer that it hits?
For those who become intoxicated with the elixir of power — the present author has himself been inebriated with this elixir once or twice — most of these effects occur in increments, over time, and are barely visible. Like the frog that will sit in a pan of water and, if the heat is raised ever so gradually, allow itself to be boiled, we can become intoxicated, ever so gradually, by the elixir of power, as other people vie for our good offices, anticipate our wishes, and grease the skids for us. In time, we become in many ways the opposite of what we say we should be. Who cannot recite the platitudes of contemporary leadership theory, which is all about “empowerment”? And yet here we are: We began with the ideal of being “leaders,” and ended up being ordinary “bosses,” with a few favorites, while the rest of our people are reduced to the status of “factors of production.” We create as an inevitable output the disengagement of some, if not most of our people, probably with the adverse effects noted in the Gallup reports.
Like the boiled frog, we probably did not realize that this was happening. For those of us who care about it, what can be done? Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, wrote a short little book (Schein 2013), the guidance of which is embedded in its title: Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Here is a summary of that guidance:
- Never stop asking questions
- Listen to the answers when given
- Never show anger when people disagree with you
- Embrace humility.
To this wisdom, another principle should be added. This writer knows from direct correspondence with Dr. Schein that he would agree with it: People should participate, up to their levels of competency, in deciding the best way to do their work, in order to accomplish the organization’s objectives. The people who make the “last turn of the screw” before your product goes out to the customer are not just “factors of production.” They are people — presumably competent people — who know how to do their jobs. Further, the relationship between your company and the customer is ultimately determined by how these people — typically at the bottom of your “pyramid” — make that “last turn of the screw.” If you empower them, they will be committed to the customer by way of caring about the quality and the cost of the product you’re selling.
So, you might begin by assuming they are competent. You might also begin by assuming that they are not out to steal their paychecks. If they aren’t already aware of how their work connects to the “big picture,” educate them. If they don’t agree with your premises, listen to their reasons for that, and then educate and persuade them, if you can. Once you have secured an agreement with them and have agreed on the objectives of your work group, let them decide the best way to accomplish them. That is, “empower” them. If you don’t, it will cost you. If you do, their efforts will make you look good.
In case they turn out to be inclined to “steal their paychecks,” after this is revealed by their not accepting your generous gambit to include them as just described, then you should probably “put them on a program.” If they don’t respond well to that…well, you know what to do. But in this writer’s experience, such folks are a minority of the workforce. If you assume that everyone is like this, you may wind up disengaging otherwise good workers. You will transform them into folks who see their work as “laying bricks for a paycheck,” until they find more congenial climes, outside your organization.
It is easy to become addicted to the elixir of power, our human egos being what they are. The best assurance that we will resist the temptation to partake of this toxic elixir is to select a different beverage — the sweet nectar of humility. Consider this.
Written by J. Richard Johnson, PhD, Professor Of Management at California Institute of Advanced Management
Gallup, Inc. 2013. State of the American workplace. Gallup.com.
Gallup, Inc. 2017. State of the American workplace. Gallup.com.
Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50: 696–735.
Schein, Edgar. 2013. Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.