The power game people play: A major leadership challenge

By Dr Pierre Casse, IEDC Professor and Elnura Irmatova, IEDC Research Assistant

Power? Some basic points

Power is basically what we need to control our lives and influence the existence of other people.

Without power, we are not able to decide on what we want to accomplish with our lives, how we are going to achieve our personal objectives but more importantly, live a long, purpose-driven, and intensive life.

Without power, we cannot get the full support from people who can help us live the life that we believe we deserve (or want to have).

Without power, we cannot lead effectively, contribute to the success of our team and company, and grow on the job.

Power game?

Yes! As soon as possible, get in the same space, at the same time a power game is on. It has always been the case. It is a social law, and it is very often a dangerous game that apparently some people play better than others.

We have always been surprised by those young people involved in MBA or in so-called high potential programs who kept telling us that they had no interest what’s so ever in the acquisition and use of power. They kept saying: “I’ll do my job at best. Enjoy my job and that will be good enough”. It seems quite an honest and …naïve position. How can you implement your great ideas if you do not have enough power (or access to it) to implement them? It can be highly frustrating and demotivating.

On the other hand, it is also misleading to believe that power is given by the people. It is not. It is granted by the institution that has it is own structure and distribution of roles. Power depends -still in many organizations today- on where you stand in the hierarchy.

Power into perspective

Power has always been a major challenge for leaders. What is different today from yesterday is the new approach (strategies and tactics) used by people (in teams and organizations) to get, use and share power. Let’s look at them closely:

  • Get the power

Past: the main sources of power were (for a long time) your knowledge, your network, your ability to deliver great results and by so doing serve the personal ambition of your manager who in principle will be grateful and send “the lift back to you”.

Today and (guessing) tomorrow: Your intuition and creativity as well as your ability to network outside the organization are becoming more and more critical in enhancing your position in the new organizational structure (in constant modification) and helping you carry out your “great ideas”.

  • Use the power

Past: People must have been able to accumulate “good” power to achieve their working objectives and enhance their careers within the organization. The best way was to network and make yourself known by senior people.

Today and (guessing) tomorrow: More power will be given to the people with the ability to manage the partnership with the fast-growing non-organic intelligence. More power will come out of the quick (and smart) use of the powerful digital platforms (GAFAM) and their algorithms.

  • Share the power

Past: The past was essentially based on what leadership gurus presented as “Delegating” i.e., the process by which you- the leader- could give enough power so that other people could also contribute to the team and organizational success and reflect well on you and your potential to move up the ladder within the company.

Today and (guessing) tomorrow: Today it is empowerment (giving the power to people to implement their ideas) that is evolving into “Self-Empowerment”. More and more people will take initiative at their own risk. They might not ask their managers for more power; they will just take it.

The dark side of power

Our research over the years tells us that one of the major issues in a power game is that it is very often used not to ensure the company’s success but to satisfy the individual ambitions within the working place.

Here are three syndromes that we have identified:

  • Reciprocity syndrome: I help you in this meeting because I know that you will agree with me in the next one (You scratch my back today and I will scratch yours the next time around).
  • Resistance syndrome: I am against the integration of two divisions (which makes business sense) because I am the loser in that operation (it is not fair).
  • Support syndrome: I support a strategic decision because it will give me a chance to go up the ladder and put some of my people in key positions.

One of the major problems in the use of corporate power is the lack of connection between Power and accountability! It is so current to see leaders failing and…blaming their partners for the unsuccessful implementation of their great ideas.

The illusion of power

We must also stress out that power is an illusion. We believe that we do have the power to control things out. Two final observations to make us think further:

  • If you believe that you have it there is a good chance you will behave accordingly, and it will work if…
  • The people around you also believe that you own it and that you can indeed provide support, reward, and…punishment.

A lot is in the eyes of the beholders!

Flash survey

We asked Dr. Barbara Smolnikar (Member of the Management Board, Zavarovalnica Triglav, d.d..; IEDC alumnus) to share with us her opinion on the points presented in the article:

«I do (although I do not support it, even if  it is still present in companies) agree with the point about the dark side of power. The reciprocity syndrome is very present in companies and is used not to ensure the company’s success but to satisfy the individual ambitions within the working place. 

Where on the other side I do not agree with the point that without power, we are not able to decide on what we want to accomplish with our lives, how we are going to achieve our personal objectives but more importantly, live long, purpose-driven and intensive life. I believe “power” is overrated and gives people the belief that they can really influence on or control everything».

As a concluding point, Dr. Smolnikar added that it could be interesting to add the «comparison of the usage of power between men and women. What are the differences between them? Is power equally used? Do women use power?»

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