Strategy and Power

20151104_145813Power gets a fair bit of attention in organizational literature. Power gets talked about a lot, typically in the abstract. However, one of the things current and typical understanding of strategy tends to create is very little meaningful day to day interactions regarding power. When you eliminate the bottom arrow of the right loop and the left facing arrowhead of the gesture and response in the interaction model, interaction about power becomes severely constrained.

Interaction Model

So power, one of the most complex, influential and meaningful experiences of organizational life tends to be hidden from our day to day interactions, even though its impact is felt daily.

Day to day as it plays out for all of us we simply don’t talk much about power in organizations! We don’t talk about how power is being used or why. We don’t talk about how it is allocated, its impact or even if we, as individuals have power at all. The impact of this when it comes to strategy is significant. Perhaps more significant than we can imagine.

For the purpose of this work the following definitions of power are being used:

  1. The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.
  2. The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.

Types of power that are often seen as relevant within organizations and which focus on the first definition above are listed below:

  • Legitimate
  • Reward
  • Coercive
  • Expert
  • Referent

Legitimate is the power that exists in a position or role in an organization. Reward is power that enables someone to reward another. Coercive is power that enables someone to punish another. Expert is power based on accepted knowledge or experience in a certain area. Referent is power based on some type of valued subjective affiliation with a person.

All of these types of power are relevant and important. When interaction about these types of power is constrained something interesting happens. Two of the types of power noted above tend to be seen by people in the organization as most prevalent.

Legitimate and coercive.

In earlier posts it was noted that when the bottom arrow of the right loop and the left facing arrowhead of the gesture and response are eliminated, strategy, for everyone that hasn’t been involved in its creation translates to:

Do what you’re told and keep your mouth shut!

This is the worst of legitimate and coercive power. Yet if we are constrained in talking about power this is what many people seem to think is happening in terms of power in their organization.

OUCH!

It’s not hard to imagine the impact this has for those of us who have not had a hand in creating the strategy for the organization. It also takes an awful lot of energy, time and effort for those that did create the strategy to try and overcome this impact. Keep in mind this dynamic is created by the way we typically understand strategy and organizations in general. As a result, this dynamic is seen almost as a normal pattern in organizations and one that naturally must be dealt with or ‘managed’.

This is one of the reasons I think there is so much content and interest being generated regarding things like leader authenticity, openness, emotional intelligence and so much more. And also why so many senior leaders see this content and interest as more or less a waste of time, even though they may not be able to effectively articulate why.

The reason why is that these concepts such as authenticity are supposed to overcome the very worst of the application of power and they cannot do this. On their own, things like authenticity are of course valuable. But applied as a ‘technique’ to overcome the impact of the worst applications of power their value is not only gone, but everyone knows it’s a technique rather than a genuine attempt. It’s almost insulting!

Perhaps the most damaging part of all this OUCH! is that it is accepted as normal in organizations! In the absence of interaction regarding power, people tend to think leaders primarily are using legitimate and coercive power in order to move strategy forward. And leaders think they must overcome resistance to moving strategy forward by creating systems and structures which should cause this resistance to disappear. Neither this perspective on power nor the approach to deal with this perspective may actually exist, but it tends to be a very common and problematic pattern of interaction and understanding in our organizational experience.

It is not easy to deal with this, to reduce the OUCH! As long as we believe that power can create certainty the interaction model is compromised so that day to day interactions regarding power are very problematic and thus avoided. To change this, do we start by changing the belief that power can create certainty or by taking a leap into bringing forward interaction and conversations about power?

I think we’re probably better off starting with the latter since the real power of leadership can help initiate these conversations and perhaps more importantly these conversations acknowledge the second definition of power noted above; the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality.Self Manager

This definition is a representation of the model of self management illustrated by Dr. Freedberg and focused on power. It illustrates an additional type of power that each of us possesses; choice.

Keep in mind, the typical way strategy is seen to be implemented; through formative causality, dismisses this type of power! When we acknowledge that choice is present for all of us, conversations regarding power begin to make a lot more sense, especially when it comes to strategy in organizations.

It is actually a little hard to imagine what conversations about power might ‘be’ like in organizations, especially when it comes to strategy. So let’s pose that question for the comments and discussion part of this post.

Comment and discussion question for this post:

  1. What do you think conversations about power, focused on strategy or its implementation would be like in organizations if our understanding of strategy was altered to be more in line with the previous posts?
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