Call it What it is: Power

By Arthur Combs

THESIS

We have observed that defining power, methods of sharing power, and reinforcing these practices through meaningful performance management, can be a starting point for greater productivity, talent retention, and workplace wellbeing. 

 

CONTEXT

Consensus over command-and-control. It’s become axiomatic that many Global 500 companies are finding decreases in productivity in traditional command and control structures, and are adopting more explicitly consultative or consensus oriented practices. 

The prevalence of false consensus. Just as the vast majority of people consider themselves above average drivers, most senior executives believe themselves to be enlightened leaders. A problem we often observe in our practice is that consultation and consensus are easy to simulate. We see a lot of executives going through the motions of consultation, and then engineering a false consensus – all the while modeling themselves as enlightened consensus builders.

The power of defining power. Once an organization defines different types of power, however, and commits to sharing those specific powers — in the context of a strong, consensus oriented culture — dramatic change can occur. It becomes more difficult for executives to go through the motions, and easier for their colleagues to hold them accountable.

Race, gender, age. It’s no mystery that the majority of executives paying lip service to consensus culture are, like me, white men of a certain age. So race and gender hang over every aspect of these dynamics.

Aspirational, and requiring clear, reinforced organizational culture. Before anyone accuses us of being aspirational, we embrace that criticism. People generally do not like giving up power, and will subvert cultural norms to avoid doing so. Any organizational or cultural design that ignores this, or any other aspect of human nature, is doomed to failure. We recognize this as fact, and know that no definitions or good intentions will suffice when a performance review system is weak or toothless. 

 

THREE GENERALLY RECOGNIZED DECISION-MAKING CULTURES

There are a lot of models for decision-making within organizations. The big three are commonly recognized as command-and-control, consultative, and consensus.

  • Command-and-control cultures: the boss makes the decision and staff hop to it
  • Consultative cultures: leaders have wide conversations, gather appropriate voice from the appropriate people, and then make a decision
  • Consensus cultures: a group strives for general consensus, through informal methods such as surveys or caucusing, or more formal methods, such as votes.

Command-and-Control: Increasingly Unpopular in Europe and the U.S.

There are professions or activities that require a form of command-and-control to ensure efficiency and/or safety. A decreasing number of organizations, however, fall into that category. It’s rare in our work in Europe or North America to run into a company that openly espouses such a culture — mainly because very few people, particularly people under 45 who make up the majority of the workforce, choose to work under these conditions, if they have a choice.

 

HOW TO CHEAT IN A CONSENSUS ORIENTED CULTURE

Going Through the Motions

It is, however, the case that we regularly encounter organizations that claim to be consultative or consensus-building when in fact they are simply cloaking their command-and-control leadership styles in lofty language. 

Pro Forma Consultation

More often than not, in our experience, executives go through the motions of consultation and then simply make the decision they were determined to make in the first place. 

Engineering False Consensus

We also commonly see false consensus-building. There is a range of ways to do this. Starting at the more benign end of the spectrum, we see leaders signalling, subtly or otherwise, what they want, and then maneuvering the conversation in that direction, knowing that most junior colleagues may be reluctant to challenge them. On the less benign end of the spectrum, and less frequently, we have seen pure bullying, which makes the follow-on claims of consensus particularly galling to employees.

The Terms “Consultative” and “Consensus” are Easily Manipulated

Part of the problem may be located in the language itself. The words consultation and consensus are just vague enough to be easily manipulated by an executive who doesn’t wish to share decision-making power. In short, these words, on their own, do not hold senior executives to account.

 

CALL IT WHAT IT IS: POWER. (AND COMMIT TO SHARING IT)

In the experience of many of us, intentional organizational culture, working group formation, organizational design, and performance management systems should all explicitly call out power-sharing go a step further by defining the different kinds of decision-making power with specificity. Not consultation. Not Consensus. 

Explicit Definitions of Power and Power-Sharing do not Replace, but Buttress Consultative and Consensus Oriented Decision-Making Cultures

We do not espouse doing away with consultative or consensus cultures of decision-making. We do, however, argue that modifying these practices with explicit, well-defined concepts of what kinds of power different actors have, and when and how they may exert that power, will help to ensure that consultation and consensus are real — because it gives more junior staff a clear idea of what they empowered to contribute, but mainly because it has the tendency of holding senior leadership to account.

It is hard to bully someone into pretending to reach consensus with you when your organization has explicitly given them the power to refuse and when this is built into the entire org culture, design, and particularly a performance management / performance review system. 

 

DEFINING FORMS OF POWER

Power needs to be defined in the particular context of the organization. If you leave the definitions vague, you simply provide another loophole— and an executive who either consciously or subconsciously does not wish to share decision-making power will proceed directly through that hole. 

When you define different kinds of power, however, you create clarity — clarity that must, at the risk of over repetition, be reinforced through a toothsome performance management practice. 

The table below defines seven types of power in a decision-making context. The first four, in green, speak to power in consultative context. The next three, in yellow, define power in a consensus context, and are increasingly formal. 

Again, we are not defining an entire system here, but describing components. All components are not right for all settings. Every organization must create its own decision-making culture to fit its own context. The marketplace will respond; appropriate choices will create greater productivity and/or talent retention.

 

Type of Power

More Junior Colleague’s Exigency

More Senior Colleague’s Exigency

1

Power of Voice

A more junior colleague has the explicit power to speak out on a decision that falls within their working purview.

A more senior colleague must, while preserving efficiency, listen. By listening properly, you are by definition sharing power.

2

Power of Counsel

This is the power to advise – which is more profound than merely the power to speak up. The power to advise speaks to a more formal transfer of knowledge and views than merely voicing a one-off opinion in a meeting.

The more senior executive is not obliged to act on advice, but must take the specifics into account when making their decisions.

3

Power of Inquiry

This is the power to ask why and how a decision was made.

This obligates a more senior executive to explain why a decision was made and, where appropriate, what factors may have led to ignoring a colleague’s counsel.

4

Power of Dissent

This is the power to voice disagreement, without fear of reprisal or loss of influence. If there is fear of reprisal or loss of influence, there is no power.

This obligates the more senior executive to listen to dissent, and to ensure that no form of harm comes to a more junior colleague’s career on the basis of their dissent. It is here that a performance review system with teeth can help hold executives to account with regard to a strict no-retribution culture.

5

Power of Pause

This is the power to call for more consultation before a decision is made. The pause must be structured and not risk harmful inefficiency, but within these constraints, a more junior employee may cause more discussion to take place.

There is some gray area here, because some decisions must be made quickly, but again, so long as a case cannot be made for damaging loss of efficiency, a more senior executive is obliged to enter into further discussion. A serial refusal would harm the executives review outcomes in a strong consensus culture.

6

Power of Escalation

This is the power to engage other more senior leaders in a discussion. It is not merely a call for more discussion, but for more discussion among a wider group of leaders.

Again, structure is necessary here. What kinds of decisions are subject to escalation? Who are they escalated to? If predetermined conditions are met, a more senior leader is obliged to reopen discussions.

7

Power of Vote

This is the power to actually have a formal vote on certain, pre identified decisions, under a clear set of rules and circumstances.



Under John Mackey, Whole Foods employees famously had the power to vote on certain local decisions, like a local leadership hire. Two thirds was required to decide in the affirmative. Mackey said he overruled such a vote only two or three times in the history of the company.

 

DEFINING POWER IN CONSULTATIVE DECISION-MAKING CULTURE

We posit that more junior staff are generally eager to take part in consultations with leaders of teams and organizations: to be heard, to contribute. Having established that, let us construct an example using the first four types of, generally consultative, power. 

A more junior colleague in this model has the power to speak up (voice), to describe the decision they would make (counsel), and, if an executive makes a decision that was contrary to their counsel, to be told precisely why (inquiry). Finally, they have the power to express their disagreement (dissent) in the knowledge that the simple fact of dissenting will not harm their future prospects [please note that we are not dealing with poor advice or poor judgment here — only the fact of dissent].

Yet again, a strong, clear culture and performance management practice is crucial to making the act of defining types of power work as it is designed to do. Staff have to have a safe place to express themselves and be taken seriously if an executive is attempting to go through the motions with regard to consultation, listening, responding thoughtfully, and not punishing dissent in any form.

 

DEFINING POWER IN A CONSENSUS DECISION-MAKING CULTURE

A more junior colleague in this model has, in addition to the powers described above in the consultative culture, the power to pause a decision-making process. The pause is dependent upon, and structured with regard to subject, context, and timeline, and must, most importantly, be used wisely so as to not harm efficiency. This is the power to extend consultation slightly, or possibly even a lot, again, depending on procedures and timelines It requires goodwill on all sides, and common sense.

 A more robust form of power is that of escalation. This is the power to ask for consultation and include a more senior leader (if one exists) into the decision-making process. As with all of these other powers, the more junior colleague, if granted this opportunity, must be able to exercise it without fear of reprisal or loss of future influence. In the real world, there will always be risk involved for the more junior colleague, and this may be invoked rarely. But at the very least, executives who know the right exists are more likely to take care to include their colleagues in decision-making, not less. Finally, the power of vote does exist in some organizations for specific issues or decisions. This is the most formal consensus tool in the box.

 

TRANSFORMING DEFINITIONS INTO PRACTICES: FOUR CHALLENGES

We have repeatedly encountered four hurdles to incorporating power-sharing definitions into practices:

  • Establishing agreed-upon definitions
  • Ensuring that both senior and junior colleagues understand the definitions with precision, and know what it all means for them as they go about their daily work.
  • Lack of an integrated performance management practice. We’ve made this point above more than once. Trust in goodwill, but verify. Performance management practices — formal reviews and regular check ins— must take into explicit account these definitions and apply them with precision to an organization’s respective decision-making culture and practices.
  • Finally, and by far the most common hurdle we encounter: executive resistance. 

Executive resistance. Much of this is an unstated desire not to share power. You don’t hear it said out loud very often, but most executives feel it on some level. They’ve worked hard to get where they are. They trust their judgment and skills. They probably didn’t have this power when they were coming up. They know how many mistakes they made when they were younger, and they are almost always under pressure to produce. 

Structure can help. It can help to demarcate and understand where powers begin and end, and to have a structure in place for when and how dissent, consensus, consultation —whatever is appropriate in a particular context— are practiced. For instance, creating a work team might be subject to consensus decision-making. Strategic financial decisions or liquidity events might not. This is why we specify decisions that fall under a more junior colleague’s work purview.

Another justifiable executive fear is inefficiency and their own capacity. Consultation and consensus practices must not merely be entered into in good faith by executives, but also by more junior staff. Work has to get done. Meetings cannot be endless. Conversations cannot be circular. This, again, is where clear structure comes into play. 

Appealing to self interest. Some executives will embrace consensus practices because they believe it’s the right thing to do. The prevalence of these attitudes may be sector dependant. Whatever the prevalence, it’s not enough. There is a data driven case to be made that sharing power is good for your career: your teams will perform better; you will attract better talent; your retention will increase. And we know that those indicators mean for profits. 

Increased performance observed. For many organizations and most executives, committing to sharing power is a leap. We have observed in several client organizations, and posit for most organizations, that being explicit about sharing power, not merely consulting, or consensus-building, or committing to collaborate, will lift an entire staff’s performance and enhance retention. 

Large body of peer reviewed studies. A massive body of data supported literature exists around the benefits of power sharing across several disciplines: politics, diplomacy, psychology, conflict resolution, gender studies, and military cultures, to name just a few. Work in the fields of business and commerce is rather newer, but the findings generally support our thesis here. 

 

A NOTE FOR WHITE MEN

A dirty little secret of white, male privilege, and this may be one of the more galling aspects of that privilege, is located in the fact that we get immense credit for doing the basics. 

It can actually be difficult for a white, male executive to give away his power unless he simply steps down from his title and position. The more you devolve your power, the more people see you as somehow enlightened, and the more influence you gain. Any senior executive knows that influence is one of the more potent forms of power. 

It manifestly does not work that way for women and BIPOC in the workplace. 

But still, even with all of that, it’s not enough for many executives who may be afraid to let go of power, and we most often see them clenching. 

Appealing to fear. If you are an older white executive, again, like me, you may be tempted to run out the clock on your career, to keep going with what got you here. Most organizations don’t (yet) have the culture that is willing or able to punish us for this. But in addition to the fact that your team or organization will underperform relative to more evolved cultures, you can run out that clock knowing that a lot of smart, insightful, future leaders see you for what you are. If that doesn’t bother you, Godspeed. 

If you are a younger white man, say, under 45, and you think you can behave as my generation did, it’s almost certain that your career will underperform. That is certainly sector dependent, and in many cases, company dependent. But generally speaking, the world has shifted under our feet and many of us are hoping it’s temporary, or failing to recognize how profoundly the world has changed. We can adapt or decline. 

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