The Spontaneity Shop's Blog

Control and Power

Tom Salinsky writes...

One of my pet theories is that growing up is a process of figuring out how much control of the universe we can have, and then how much we want. As tiny babies, we don’t have the cognitive equipment to do much more than cry when things aren’t to our liking. As early toddlers, we’re generally fairly passive, but then we learn the word “no” and discover that these lumbering adults don’t have to have things all their own way all the time. As we mature into teenagers, conflict between us and our parents is commonplace – our parents provide the income and infrastructure, but we’re ready for more independence than is really good for us.

As adults, some of us are happy to take the responsibility of leadership in exchange for the feeling of autonomy we get. Others of us are constantly looking for an authority figure to take direction from – and of course there are many intermediate shades as well as individual variation over a lifetime, a year or even an afternoon. But in general, people who have emerged from the growing up process with about as much control of the universe as they would ideally like tend to be happy and fulfilled – and people who have failed in this endeavour tend to be neurotic, unhappy or angry at the world.

I don’t propose to cite any evidence for this – I don’t think of it as a scientific hypothesis which could be tested – rather, it’s a mental model to use to try and improve personal outcomes, especially for people placed in leadership situations.

In the armed forces, as well as institutions like hospitals or the police, rank is all-important. You instantly and unquestioningly obey the commands given to you by someone of a higher rank (and you can tell their rank at a glance by the bigness of their hat) because if you don’t, people may die. And if you do and people die anyway, it’s very easy to accurately apportion blame. It’s not such a bad system, except when the authority figures are requiring that those under them perform acts which are obscene or morally reprehensible.

But in most other organisations, while there is a hierarchy, the stakes are lower and so people are freer to question authority. Just as “because I said so” is unlikely to work with your stroppy 14 year old daughter, the same riposte is unlikely to mollify an underling who has rather less control of the universe than they would like and who regards your instructions as ill-thought-out, self-serving or just inconvenient.

Machiavelli famously said of princes that it is better to be feared than loved, since love is reciprocal and so the other party can withdraw their love without notice, but fear is one-way so others will continue to fear you as long as you continue have the power to instil that fear. But less famously, Machiavelli also said that it is best to be both feared and loved. I think I would soften that language a little for the corporate world. An ideal leader has to be both respected and liked. If your team doesn’t like you, they won’t be motivated to follow your instructions and will at best do so under sufferance. If your team doesn’t respect you, they will be tempted to take short-cuts or to undermine your authority.

You can really see these problems writ large in reality shows like The Apprentice where the pressure-cooker environment of the competition and the cameras stokes egos and anxieties and where leadership roles are often granted arbitrarily and where today’s leader may have to be tomorrow’s follower. Often these hapless camera-fodder individuals lurch to one extreme or the other. Some adopt the role of zero-tolerance martinet, desperate to assert their authority and have the last word on everything. This demotivates and underutilises the rest of the team who feel that their contribution is not valued. The others attempt to become head of a democratic state which means that decision-making takes an age, and then when a decision is taken, those who didn’t get their way feel as if they could probably change the leader’s mind if they shout loud enough.

It is vital for the effective leader to navigate a path between these two extremes – gather ideas from everybody and ensure everybody is heard and listened to. Then announce your decision and give clear reasons for it so your decrees do not seem arbitrary. You are in control of this portion of the universe, but you don’t have to rule by fear to achieve that goal.

September 22nd, 2014 - This post has no comments. - Tags: , , ,

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