Power, politics and readiness for change

Early in my career, I was told that “middle management” are often the main obstacle to progress in an organisation.

The middle managers, so the theory goes, see every change as either a threat to their hard-won business empire (resulting in less staff, less authority, a loss in status etc) or a chance to use the change to extend their empire. Thus they avoid implementing some changes and adapt or corrupt other changes based on their own agendas. And by doing this, they convert potential progress into political game playing.

But is this really true?

Do middle managers really spend their time empire building? And, for that matter, are senior management and the junior staff really immune from getting involved in politics and power-shifts?

The case against the theory

My experience as a junior manager was that I was never actually had time for empire building. I was too busy trying to make sense of changes that were “inflicted” on my team from above or outside my own sphere of influence. And when I wasn’t doing that I was juggling the issues within my team or scrounging for the resources to allow my team to keep “doing more with less”.

And as I got more senior I noticed something strange – as the size of my team grew, I actually seemed to lose power rather than to gain it.

Influencing a small group was easy: I could see what they were doing.

But as my team grew, I found that a lot of people ignored my carefully laid plans and went off in their own direction. Or they went back to doing things the old way in spite of the huge investment we were making in the latest changes. In fact, they even seemed to do this when it made their own lives harder.

So I had the “positional power” to announce new edicts and draft new policies, but not the real power to ensure they were followed. 

The case for the theory

Another strange thing happened as I grew more senior though. I started getting feedback that I was really good at politics. Apparently I was good at influencing events for the benefit of both my team and my “political agenda”.  This was odd because I didn’t even have a political agenda, just an endless pile of objectives, conflicting expectations and burning issues to resolve.

I found that I was good at “talking to people” and “anticipating how people will react” which was interpreted as being good at politics. And a key strength, I was told, was my ability to get people together to resolve complex differences and negotiate thorny issues.

But then I started being told that I was bad at politics because I was naive and assumed other people had the right intentions. I even got told in one performance review didn’t belong in a large organisation because I didn’t really get how the game was played at a senior level.

So it appeared that both my key strengths and my limitations as a manager were closely tied to my political acumen.

And this political acumen seemed even more important when running projects:

  • Major changes always involved meeting with those effected by the change. And those people (junior and senior) were definitely concerned about changes to job titles, reporting structures and other “Symbols” I discussed in my article on the Arenas of Change;
  • Empowering people (redistributing power from their boss to them) was often an aim on my change projects; and
  • The clarity or ambiguity around decision rights (who can make or contribute to different decisions) was often a key factor in the smooth transition (or rocky landing) of my projects when they went live.

My conclusion

I don’t think the idea that most middle managers resist change by consciously thinking about their empires and their relative PQ (“Power Quotient”) really stacks up.

On the other hand though, change often means someone losing power and someone else gaining power. And it stands to reason that people are likely to resist losing power.

My experience is that people do “play politics” or “resist sensible change” when they fear losing status, authority and power.

So, what would happen if we tried to predict their potential resistance to change by just asking them:

Do you think that you will gain or lose power in this transition; and

Will you play politics if you think your current power quotient is threatened?

Actually, I think that is exactly what I think we should do.  And I think the questions come up naturally if you are using techniques like the 7-S Framework or the Arenas of Change approach.

The problem is not that people won’t answer the questions honestly. The problem is that we don’t define power properly before we ask the questions.

Assessing “power” when looking at readiness for change

To me, power means:

  • The ability to make and implement decisions;
  • The ability to control your environment; and
  • The ability to influence outcomes according to what you think should happen.

This is important to people. But so too is the “semblance of power”: The perception that (you think) others perceive you to have power and influence.

Playing politics means actively manipulating events to achieve your own agenda. Particularly when done so in a dodgy way or with a focus on your own gains rather than the greater good of the group.

So, we might do better if we asked “will you attempt to preserve your ability to make a difference here? (ie Will you manipulate events to protect your current level of power)?

But we would still get an inadequate answer, even if we got honest answers from everyone likely to be impacted by a change we are planning. Firstly, they don’t really understand how the change will impact their “ability to make a difference” and secondly we don’t really understand what “ability to make a difference” they really have.

So my next article is a review of the questions you might ask to learn where power comes from in a group and that knowledge might impact the successful adoption of any changes you are rolling out. Its fairly long and a little dry, but I hope that it will be useful to refer back to if you are assessing the potential impact and liklihood of success of a proposed change on a team.


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