Tag Archives: hierarchy

The one where it’s in your name

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Actually about a year ago in an office about 20 miles from where I am sat, I had a problem with my laptop at work. I had just returned from an overseas trip and it apparently was no longer “part of the domain”. Being a well schooled user of corporate IT I checked the network cable and switched it off and back on again and nothing… At the time I was 25 minutes away from a 1 to 1 with my boss, my phone was ringing and in a delegatory moment I asked our team administrator if she would mind calling IT and asking them to sort it out. In the following minutes whilst on another call I heard the following “but don’t you know who it’s for?” and my blood ran cold.

I like our IT team, they have a real customer service mentality, care about their metrics and deal with everyone fairly and with equity, and so the idea that our well meaning administrator was trying to using the (somewhat questionable) power of my job title to get this sorted really bothered me.

A wise man once said (actually it’s a supplier who was informally coaching me at the time) that every time you refer to your boss or a senior person when discussing a decision or course of action that what you are signalling to the other person is a) I don’t have any power or influence here and b) I am using their proxy to drive this course of action. This really bothered me also. Both in a professional sense but also in terms of my personal pride and view of myself in that organisation. It made me stop and reflect how many times I had opened a sentence with “I’ve been speaking to Clare and…” or “Clare and I have discussed this and…” thus signalling I was the monkey and Clare was the organ grinder.

I wrote a while ago about the different forms of power (blog here) and whilst hierarchical power works, in light of this comment from my coach it always felt to me like admitting defeat “I can’t win this argument on logic or reason so I’m just going to use rank”

So park me and the reflections for a moment and consider this:

How many times do people you work with in your organisation making emphatic reference to a senior person when trying to make a point?

Stop and think about it…

It’s a lot isn’t it?

Having asked myself the same question some time ago I embarked on a piece of informal research (or as some may call it – trying to get my own way) when something I was trying to achieve was thwarted or struck down with a ‘senior person reference’ and my findings showed there were roughly four realities behind the ‘senior person reference’:

1. The senior person was against my course of action and had empowered a member of their team to manage this with me

2. The senior person had asked some questions around the course of action and wanted to explore it more to understand the purpose. This had been misunderstood as not wanting it and the misunderstanding was driving the subsequent conversation

3. The senior person had made a cursory comment about the course of action but their team member had a strong view which was being backed by the cursory comment.

4. The senior person had no view, had not been part of the discussion and could go either way on the issue

Fortunately for our organisation (although not necessarily for my objectives!) the majority of the references fell into item number 1 and required a trip to the drawing board. However on the odd occasion that the others on the list snuck out, it was very interesting to try and resolve the issue and also understand the dynamics that were driving the behaviour.

So I will leave you with a few questions, which if this gets commented on are actual questions, if it doesn’t then of course I completely intended them to be rhetorical:

How often and how severely have you come up against numbers 2, 3 & 4?

What are the context/behaviours you think may drive that?

And finally, what is being done in your name? (that’s definitely rhetorical!)



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The one where it’s about power

They say absolute power corrupts absolutely…

French & Raven (1959) defined five different types of power. What follows is my take on their five:

  • Positional Power – the one with the most stripes wins
  • Referent Power – the power of some people to draw others to them (to me most akin to charisma)
  • Expert Power – the one who knows how to work it has power (see also I.T. people)
  • Reward Power – the one with the carrot has the power
  • Coercive Power – the one with the stick has the power

What’s interesting, to me at least, is that you see these forms of power play out in day to day life from a very early age. Think of the school playground, the cool kid, the one who’s good at football, I would say the one with the best toy but now it’s probably the one with the best phone/gadget. As adults it’s part of work, friendship and relationships and if you stop and pay attention you will see people exercising different forms of power with varying degrees of success all the time.

Power is absolutely part of our lives and I think it was Uncle Ben (in Spiderman, not the one on the rice packet) who said “with great power comes great responsibility”…

One of the companies I worked for had a very charismatic CEO who despite having ‘all the chips’ in terms of positional power, lead far more based on his referent power. For the sake of ease let’s call him Robert (great name BTW). One of the other directors was fond of saying in meetings “I don’t want to have to remind you I am a director of this business” which was usually met with obedient faux nodding and at least one mutter of “Robert never has to remind us”. What always amazed me about the CEO was his ability even when kicking the crap out of me was a) to seem respectful to me as a person and b) to leave me motivated to solve the problem

It seems to me (and there is no science in this) that there is a defined link between self confidence/security and the use or misuse of power i.e. those who are confident in context (whether that be as an employee, friend or partner) are the ones who exercise it best. This begs the question was the Director of my former employer merely underdeveloped in referent power so had to rely on positional power OR insecure enough that he felt the need to assert that positional power OR both? (*head spins)

In reflecting on myself (as I am prone to do from time to time) I realise that like everyone else, I have good days and bad days. If I were to sit with a pad and some time I would imagine I could come up with a list of where me exercising power has had a positive effect on others whether that be in support, challenge, motivation, inspiration (or perspiration) etc and conversely (whether through good or bad intention) I have had a negative effect.

Alexander Pope said “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing” so to close what feels like a rather rambling post, hopefully the knowledge shared here (safely thank you Mr Pope) has a similar impact for you as it did for me with respect to power – turning unconscious incompetence into conscious incompetence (and you never know one day we could all be competent, or maybe you already are!)

French, J.R.P., & Raven, B. (1959). ‘The bases of social power,’ in D. Cartwright (ed.) Studies in Social Power.


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