Herein is a story about a traditional boss who is a nice guy, but is he a good leader?
He tries to be fair minded, but reminds you in subtle ways he is the boss.
However, get him away from work and he’ll take on a different persona with you, more like a peer. Does this sound like a leader who would detract from productivity on her or his team? If you think probably not, read on, you may be surprised.
Bob is the first line manager of a team of highly educated engineers. Theirs is an organization that is much like organizations were in the 1950s, a traditional, “I’m the boss” style of organization. The managerial philosophy is one of power where the power differential is oft demonstrated. A power differential simply means one is in a position of power over another.
The philosophy in Bob’s organization is one where workers are lazy and need the boss to crack the proverbial whip from time to time. Manager interaction with direct reports is often focused on policy and reminding of this power differential. And when there is trouble or a problem with productivity, the worker is blamed. The boss in such a culture has the power to destroy your career, so you never want to get on the boss’ bad side. Fear is an inherent manna of the power culture.
An analogy I think all of us can relate to is the power differential between a parent and a child. In fact, it may be more than an analogy.
Games People Play
Dr. Eric Berne in his famous book “Games People Play” tells us that in the adult world, parent-child power differentials occur all the time. He explains when someone exhibits power over you they may take on and manifest the parent ego, and our natural response is to take on the child ego. This role playing is a natural aspect of our social nature. In short, exhibiting a power differential is a natural phenomenon in human nature. The condescension we felt as children can be felt as adults when others flex their power differential over us. I might not have used the terms parent and child per se, but it does well to highlight the condescension that is felt when it happens, and the effects are very much the same.
It should be noted that even the subtlest behavioral cues, facial expressions and voice inflections can convey the power differential. It should also be noted that I do not advocate removing the power differential because it usually cannot be removed, but rather to avoid demonstrating it and invoking the parent-child ego roles. The important thing to realize is that all these subtle things are not also subtly tangible. They actually have real and significant impact on team outcomes.
Getting back to the story, Bob’s organization is also one where new people regardless of past experience or education, are treated a little like children, often for years before they are given a little nugget of trust. It is as if those who “built” the culture had Dr. Berne’s idea of parent/child egos in mind so to institutionalize the power differential pump. Bear in mind that in such an organization, a focal aspect of the culture is power and control.
The pumping of power begins after the end of your three day employee orientation when your name and your manager’s name are called out publically in front of everyone. All the managers are waiting in the hallway outside for their new hires. They don’t tell you about this ahead of time, and when they call out the names you can feel the condescension to the point it is embarrassing. One new employee described it like their parent picking them up from summer camp – only more embarrassing.
Now when Bob retrieves his direct reports from the orientation he complains about it every time. He thinks the practice is stupid, but plays along because it is expected of him. In reality, often when he exhibits the power differential he does so because he thinks it is expected of him, not because he likes it. He blames policy and explains he is more lenient than he should be.
There are often three significant results from the daily work life in such a culture as in Bob’s organization. One is that like everyone else on the team, Bob is human. This means he’s going to have good days and bad days, and on bad days it is easier in a power culture to not only be more condescending and even rude, but also to lash out.
One day Bob lashed out to one of his direct reports, one of his team leads Raj. It wasn’t a big deal, just used a stern voice with condescending language. If we embellish to bring to point Zig Ziggler’s story about kicking the cat, he lashed out at Raj who lashed out at one of the team members, Lisa. Lisa came home and lashed out at her son, and her son lashed out and kicked their cat. All that came of this was the cat got kicked. Bob might as well have just gone over to Lisa’s house and kicked her cat and saved Raj and Lisa the condescension. It would also have prevented poisoning transparency and trust.
The second result is far more damaging to the culture of the team. Raj grew up in a caste system in a culture where power and privilege are normal. He likes the power differential and wants to be in positions of power – almost as if he felt such is his birth right, though he’ll never admit it. To Raj, Bob’s lashing out was simply what bosses have the privilege to use in their boss’ toolbox. Also, Raj saw Bob’s lashing out as an example. But Raj took Bob’s lashing out further and was more rude and condescending. In reality, Raj wasn’t lashing out at all. He was simply exercising the privilege of demonstrating the power differential – something he enjoys.
Both Bob’s lashing out and Raj’s power demonstration sends another message, one where those with the power are superior, and those without are inferior. It is import to understand that we might consciously reject this message, but assimilate it subconsciously. At a minimum, we will be more hesitant to say things that need to be said. The reason is the human brain’s social network seems to be designed to play such roles, and it will affect everything from job engagement to self-confidence – cascading to significantly impact team productivity. Moreover, mediocrity can become institutionalized because superiority-inferiority and control interact to curb enthusiasm and innovation.
The third result is a little more subtle and hard to measure empirically, but easy to detect if you work in such an organization. That result is favoritism. What is favoritism? In short, those who get promoted are those who the managers like, and such can be obvious to everyone but the boss. The reason is favoritism tends to have a deep connection with primitive brain structures we share with other animals and thus often originate deep in our subconscious. We then tend to spin up after the fact, rationale we can socialize that satisfies our sense of fairness.
Such can be a natural consequence of a power culture if the culture is not managed. Just to make sure you understand a power culture, it is one where the power differential is a focal feature of the culture. In a military organization, the power differential manifests very differently because it is usually managed well and the mission is usually the focal feature. Also, promotions are heavily regulated. But some of the same results can occur in military organizations as well.
After years of condescension, favoritism, and repeatedly reminders of who is in power (whether by a manager or a peer in a role of authority), if the culture also has strong mores involving conflict avoidance, another phenomenon that is devastating to productivity can occur. Cultures where avoiding conflict is a strong feature, most commonly enforced through silent ostracizing, true dissent in team decisions can be quite rare. The resulting decisions then tend to be little more than what the top decision-maker prefers. You’ll see everyone else playing the agreeable roles in meetings and elsewhere, smiling as their proverbial Pinocchio nose grows. Problems get swept under the rug, and many, maybe most, cope through apathy. Smile, be pleasant and nice and just don’t care about what is wrong because in reality, you cannot change it. The hidden costs associated with this are often significant.
In such an organization, the espoused meritocracy is often quite different from what actually merits reward. The productivity of such an environment can be so hindered that the organization bloats just to get the job done. As you might expect, much of what is wrote about here on leadership will not only be rarely found in the day-to-day life of such an organization, but it would also be hard to find a leader who could have an intelligence conversation about such leadership concepts. The reason is such a culture tends to repel leaders with values and competencies that are at odds with the culture.
In the end, the power culture I described above fails most organizations. In those organizations where it thrives are organizations that are well funded and are little impacted by the external environment. Basically, there is little pressure to do things differently. The longer it continues the more likely their culture becomes a self-proclaimed hallmark of what makes the organization great and is thus next to impossible to change. Their arrogance can turn into hubris when the funding dries up and pressure grows from the external environment.
It’s a good thing that we have free enterprise where small organizations demonstrating effective leadership and high productivity can compete with the bloated power organizations, pressuring them to change. Given what I wrote, what kind of boss are you?
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Another fantastic article Mark! I love the way you have been able to weave all the issues that come with poor leadership as a result of organizational cultures that stress hierarchy and power differential. If the story you have so carefully told is common in the workplace, it is easy to understand why the numbers of disengaged employees continues to be so high. This reality seems to be impossible to change, so why bother.
I experienced a similar culture earlier in my career and I am very happy to say that most of the companies I have worked for since have implemented good HR and Org Dev systems that help balance out the work cultures. Even so, issues like power culture, favoritism, and organizational gloat still remain and make it very difficult to lead in a positive way.
Thanks for sharing another fantastic post!