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Power and powerlessness in organizations

A while ago, I was working with Charlie, a committed auditor with 18 years of experience, to prepare for a retreat to improve the internal decision-making process of an organization in a highly regulated sector. I had been hired by Marlin, a two-year manager who wanted to advance her agenda for change.

“There is very little we can change because every procedure here is based on government regulations,” Charlie told me. “We’re talking about people’s pensions. If we change the way we do things, they might lose their source of income during retirement.”

I asked Charlie and his colleagues to list the procedures, reporting requirements, standing meetings and other management processes they were following as part of their jobs. The group of 30 people produced two charts: the processes that the government required and the ones that had been created internally. To Charlie's surprise, most processes were self-generated, and much more could be streamlined than he originally thought.

In the same department where Charlie felt powerless and resigned to the status quo, Marlin was actively working for change and mobilizing her power to challenge it. How do we explain those apparently opposite poles — power over the system (Marlin) vs. powerlessness over the system (Charlie) — and the cycle of how they transform into each other?

Your explanation might be that Marlin is new to the organization, while Charlie has been there for much longer and has become just an old bureaucrat. If you are particularly cynical, you might even say that Marlin will turn into Charlie given enough time. But what takes place that turns resistance and power into powerlessness and quiescence?

Charlie’s powerlessness is rooted in a perceived inability to act, which he blames on an external circumstance, absolving him from being accountable for the future of his organization. How has the organization beaten out of Charlie a sense of hope for change over the years?

My guess is that Charlie's expectations for failure in making a difference in his organization have been learned the hard way and are now internalized to the point that the issue of change has become a non-starter. The moment change became unconceivable, Charlie started acting like his assumption that change is not possible is a fact, no longer an assumption. He actively represented to others — me in this case — that change is not possible. He is now part of the problem.

How about Marlin? She starts as a powerful person willing to make a difference in the story. But what could happen if Marlin fails in her effort to change? Could she eventually turn into Charlie and start acting as a powerless individual, actively accepting reality and not seeing it as changeable anymore? Referencing Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, what will need to happen for Marlin to obscure her capacity to see the difference between what can and can't be changed?

Leadership is about creating the future. When we exercise leadership, such as in Marlin's case, we decide how we want to shape the future. Sometimes we accept what is happening around us and try to adapt to it, such as Charlie. Other times we challenge what is happening and try to change it.

When we decide to change the future, we must decide how we do that. Often, that looks a lot like pushing: We define a more polished way to present our very generous aspiration, then we start making an inventory of the resources we can muster in our effort: arguments, authority, information, supporters, money and friendships. When others push back, whether in the office, in our community or at home, we end up stuck, frustrated, disappointed or embittered.

We start as Marlin (powerful) but end up as Charlie (powerless). Marlin turns into Charlie when her plan for change is based only on her own point of view and when she doesn’t create alliances with others within the organization.

How do we preserve Marlin's idealism and mix it with Charlie's brutally honest understanding of the context?

  • Recognize the power that you have in every situation. You do have it! We often don't recognize our own organizational power to act. But finding one initiative that can demonstrate, even on a small scale, that taking action will not result in catastrophic failure is easy enough for any person. Demonstrate that action in every situation is possible by taking a small action and studying what happens as a result.

  • Understand the pattern you are dealing with by naming it and making people aware of it. Action by itself might not be enough. In any change initiative, the first objective needs to be to make the topic discussible. Name the dynamic, and observe what happens. Inevitably, someone will deny it, but that's not a good reason for not trying to change it. You are building your path, and supporters will start appearing in places you never expected.

  • Envision a future desirable enough that you’re willing to take some risks. You need to make the future visible and appeal to people’s hearts as well as their brain. Data is good, but ultimately, every time you take ownership of your power, you are leading with a question and a possibility in hand. No more. People will join you if you manage to appeal to their own power rather than to rational arguments only.

  • Move from learned helplessness to learned optimism. It's more fun! In general, it is easier to adapt an optimistic view of life than a pessimistic one. Learning to see the glass half-full takes practice but makes for an easier path in the long haul.

Adriano Pianesi is a leadership practitioner, faculty member of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, where he also teaches for the Office of Executive Education. Through ParticipAction Consulting, his consulting practice, he helps diverse groups of people come together to solve tough problems, and helps leaders work for change by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity. He is a faculty member of the World Bank "Team Leadership Program" and of the State Department "Experiential Learning Program". He is the author of the e‐book “Teachable Moments of Leadership” where he describes a state‐of‐the‐art experiential leadership learning methodology that gets real results. Visit his website.

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