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The way in which we think about our world no doubt has a tremendous influence on how we act, and thus our thoughts, collectively and individually, through action or inaction, shape our world over time. The mere fact that we are trying to reinvent management here through the Management Innovation eXchange says that we acknowledge that, at least to some degree, it's broken - we see this in how recent world economic events have been playing out, and we feel this in the growing disconnects within organisations and between organisations and their target audiences. Should we not be paying more attention to the underlying assumptions we're making in attempting to reinvent management?
Although the ideas surrounding managing without managers are romantically appealing (largely because of their tremendous deviation from historical and contemporary management philosophies), I argue that we first need to understand the role of power in society before we can start rethinking the way in which we get together to organise ourselves towards goals.
Without going back to basics, all we're going to be doing is muddying the current thinking in management, which will no doubt result in further confusion and dislocation as our thoughts and actions collectively transform our world in the future.
- Power relations are bi-directional (I allocate a certain amount of power to you in my mind, and vice-versa), and power is afforded to those who [at least appear] to further the interests of the group. Thus, if you act in such a way that one or more groups of people perceive you to be furthering their interests, they will afford you power over them.
- Power is a heuristic solution to the problem of allocating resources in interdependent relationships. Thus, power seems to be a built-in biological mechanism, perhaps a sort of evolutionary mechanism, which we consciously and subconsciously use to allocate resources effectively over time. For example, if we afford someone a certain amount of power over us, they will often also exert more control over resources at humanity's disposal (e.g. government). If we see them squandering those resources, we will employ whatever mechanisms we can to remove power from them. If they allocate them effectively over time, and in such a way that this furthers our interests, we will continue to afford them power over us.
Interestingly, we also have built-in mechanisms to remove power from those in authority. We see two of these mechanisms playing out in the day-to-day politics in the office: gossip and ridicule. If someone who has a certain amount of power is perceived as no longer acting in our interests, we will very often spread rumours and ridicule them behind their backs (or sometimes even openly) in an attempt to destroy their reputations and thus remove the power afforded to them by others. This is how we innately communicate to the rest of our group that we've noticed that this powerful person (or group) is acting selfishly, or against our interests.
So what does this mean for us in the process of human organising? Can we simply automatically assume that we can just give power away to our employees in the (perhaps misguided) hope that this new way of organising will have better results in the long run? I think not. I don't see how pasting a solution like this onto all organisations could possibly work in all situations.
What we need, in my opinion, is a very context-specific application of the right philosophies for each of our unique situations. There is no one right way of organising. There is no one right goal to organising - the profit motive is no longer enough. We need to rethink why it is that we are organising in the first place.
The solution to the challenge of going back to basics in understanding what the role of power is in society can be summed up in the following question. Is your company truly creating real value for others? If not, society will find a way to remove you eventually. If so, and you can do this effectively, your target audiences will help in keeping you there.
This is certainly a very high-level treatment of the phenomenon, and I would very much like to delve into the problem of appearing to create value as opposed to actually creating real value and communicating this effectively in a future entry, as well as the potential issues arising from the possibility that what people perceive to be good for them is not necessarily what's really good for them, especially in the long run.
With this perspective shift in mind, one of the most important places in which this understanding needs to be carefully influenced is in the organisational structure. For example, what are the long-term effects caused by the discord between the organisational hierarchy on paper (also known as the "org chart") and the real power relations in the workplace which shift dynamically over time? Where should we, as leaders, be stepping back to allow power dynamics to play out naturally, and where should we be stepping in, refuting gossip and ridicule where this is being employed to wrongfully remove power from those who should actually be in power?
Also, this fundamentally shifts one's paradigm in terms of what a leader is, and moves one from being the centre of attention toward being a servant of the group.
Finally, this perspective breaks down the view that one can separate your "organisation" from the rest of society, and exposes the complex societal forces (that we've simplified away) that are actually playing out every day. We can only ignore these complex dynamics at our and our children's future peril.
- Understand the (evolving) philosophy behind this hack. Contact me if you'd like to discuss and develop these ideas further.
- As a leader, pay more attention to the conversations of those around you in your day-to-day politics. Instead of avoiding politics, become part of it but acknowledge the impact of your understanding of power dynamics and the responsibility to the group that comes with it. Remember: society will find a way to remove your power from you if we see you're not acting in our interests.
- the work of Ralph Stacey in his book Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity, and
- the article by Keltner, Van Kleef, Chen and Kraus (2008) entitled A reciprocal influence model of social power.