Friday, September 4, 2009

Politics and power

I think there are two modes in the way that we react to other people in organizations:
  • trust
  • power
Trust: the state we reach when we assume that our colleagues are competent and want the project to succeed. We may work independently, but we know that, when we need something to help our work from the others, they will listen and help. We wish that they feel valued in their jobs, and they wish the same for us.

Power: the other members of our team may not want what we want. Our job is to make it more likely that we get what we want. Others will surely do the same; the winner is the person who does it with the most success. Success comes from having powerful people agree with you, so that you can make less powerful people do what you want.

An interest in power comes from anxiety. This in turn comes from a potentially unlimited threat from a poorly regulated society.

The two do not mix; that is, a significant part of the team working for power will destroy trust. Increase in trust makes the desire for power irrelevant or ugly.

The clearest example I can think of is the analysis of companies that become successful in Good to Great by Jim Collins. Companies that shift from mediocrity to prolonged success differed markedly from comparison companies in the character of their leaders. The book describes the successful leaders as being 'level 5' and elsewhere 'servant-leaders'. These leaders seemed to have an unusual lack of interest in personal power. From the Wikipedia article on servant leadership :

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’

From Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, trans. John C. H. Wu (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala, 2006), 35.

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