Power and Rights

In more cases than we’d like to imagine, it’s good people with good intentions end up doing bad things.

Most of us intuitively know what power is about, just like we intuitively know what design is about.

However, knowing is not the same as understanding. The former is about what, the latter informs how.

Our frustrations in organizations large and small surely have many sources (design being one?). But perhaps the numbest of all is felt by people who are hopeful enough to persist, but who are paralyzed by their inability to act.

The conventional perception of a “large org” is that of one filled with idiots, lazy bones, and greedy executives. That’s a myth propagated by a villain mindset, which says bad intentions lead to people doing bad things.

Contrary to what many choose to believe, large orgs are full of intelligent, passionate, and hopeful people who are struggling. And in more cases than we’d like to imagine, it’s good people with good intentions end up doing bad things.

Bestselling business/management books like to attribute those problems to culture, leadership, and everything in between. However, few of them mention power in any meaningful sense.

It’s as if power dynamics doesn’t matter.

Any cross-level conversation is friendly and constructive until the word “power” is mentioned.

Powerlessness

Of course it does.

In organizations, especially large ones, any cross-level conversation is friendly and constructive until the word “power” is mentioned.

So what’s so significant about power? Power is in everything we do in any organization.

Power matters a lot in just about any organization. I believe part of the issue is that, the majority of people in large orgs — working-level employees and grudging middle management — know what power is about, but don’t necessarily understand it.

That’s my damning statement: most of us, myself included, know enough about “power” to react in tactical ways, but don’t understand it enough to address it in strategic ways, make informed decisions, and to take action accordingly.

We often say that, in a large org of bureaucracy we learn to “play the political game.” But to really play a game, chess for example, we not only need to know the rules, but also need to understand it enough to create strategies.

If you’re in a large org, frustrated by your management’s inability to push for change, or by your own inability to take action: what strategy do you have in mind to move forward and deal with the power dynamics? Where do you go from here?

Until practiced, all talks about empowerment are merely linguistic illusions.

Form Follows Function, Power Follows Right

That’s the question we are only able to attempt answer when we gain deep understanding of the concept, incarnation, and phenomenon of power in organizations.

Unfortunately, Machiavellian chicken soup on the bookshelf doesn’t cut it.

Until practiced, all talks about empowerment are merely linguistic illusions, which is a polite way of saying “paying lip service.” Many of us know one or two executives who maneuver like magicians, one trick after another, with applauses.

We like (or hate) to talk about empowerment, empowering people, empowering employees, among many proverbial keynote speeches and leadership updates. But we know better. We know it’s all empty talk without addressing power.

Why is that? Because power goes hand-in-hand with rights. It doesn’t matter what your boss say about empowering you, because at the end of the day, you only need to know four things to do any piece of work given to you:

First, do you have the right to suggest?

Second, do you have the right to resolve conflict?

Third, do you have the right to intervene?

And fourth, do you have the right to decide?

Those are the rights that shape the power structure.

Four rights

Six types of power emerge from those four basic rights:

  • Participatory power
  • Consultatory power
  • Legal power
  • Bureaucratic power
  • Managerial power
  • Executive power.

Where do your frustrations point to?

Six powers

What types of power are in your way?

And which ones are on your side?

Those are the questions you need to attempt answering if you want to push for change and make a difference in an organization filled with people acting out those powers.

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