Distributing Power, Authority, and Status

A critical issue in any new group is how influence, power, and authority will be allocated and what the rules will be for “deference and demeanor” (Goffman, 1967). The process of stratification in human systems is typi­cally not as blatant as the dominance-establishing rituals of animal societ­ies, but it is functionally equivalent in that it concerns the evolution of workable rules for managing aggression and mastery needs. Human societ­ies develop pecking orders just as chickens do, but both the process and the outcome are, of course, far more complex and varied. As we will see in Chapter Twelve, in a new group the process of sorting out who will domi­nate whom and who will influence whom can be very messy and unpre­dictable. But most organizations start with founders and leaders who have preconceptions about how things should be run and, therefore, impose rules that initially determine how authority is to be obtained and how aggressive behavior is to be managed.

DEC and Ciba-Geigy differed dramatically in their methods of allocat­ing power and channeling aggression. In DEC, power was derived from personal success and building a support network. Formal rank, seniority, and job description had relatively less influence than personal characteris­tics and track record. Personal characteristics such as the ability to negoti­ate, to convince, and to be proved right by circumstance were emphasized. The formal system of status was deliberately de-emphasized in favor of an assumption that everyone has a right to participate, to voice an opinion, and to be heard because good ideas can come from anyone. However, because no one was considered smart enough to evaluate the quality of his or her own idea, the individual always had to get buy-in if others were involved in the implementation of that idea, and anyone had a right and obligation to challenge it. Aggression was thus channeled into the daily working routines but directed at ideas, not people. The further assump­tion, that once in the organization, you were a member of “the family” and could not really lose membership, protected people from feeling personally threatened if their ideas were challenged.

Ciba-Geigy, on the other hand, had a very formal system of allocating power based on personal background, educational credentials, seniority, loyalty, and successful performance of whatever jobs were allocated to the person by higher authority. After a certain number of years, an employee acquired a rank similar to the kind of rank that comes with promotion in military service or the civil service, and this rank was independent of particular job assignments. Status and privileges went with this rank and could not be lost even if the employee was given reduced job responsi­bilities. The working climate emphasized politeness, formality, and reason. Displays of aggression were taboo, but behind-the-scenes complaining, bad- mouthing, and politicking were the inevitable consequences of suppressing overt aggression.

Both organizations could be labeled “paternalistic” from some points of view in that they generated strong family feelings and a degree of emo­tional dependence on leaders or formal authorities. However, the drastic difference in how the rules of power allocation actually worked in these two organizations serves to remind us how vague and potentially unhelp­ful broad labels such as “autocratic” or “paternalistic” are in characterizing particular organizational cultures. Note once again the tight interrelation­ship between the external issues of mission and task, on the one hand, and the internal issues of power distribution, on the other hand. The kind of technology and task involved in each organization had a direct effect on the kind of power distribution that eventually arose. The more autocratic assumptions of the science of chemistry and the more egalitarian assump­tions of the electrical engineering community in an emerging technology were powerful influences on the culture.

To understand how an authority system works requires sensitivity to the nuances of language, as illustrated by my experience in a meeting at British Petroleum in the 1980s. I was asked by the incumbent chairman to attend the three-day meeting of all of the senior managers from around the world, observe the culture in action, and facilitate a discussion of the cul­ture during the third day. At this meeting, a major structural change was to be announced and discussed. Whereas previously countries had been fairly autonomous in managing all product lines, in the new organization, world­wide business units would be created for each major product line and would be managed from London. This change meant that the country managers would lose a great deal of autonomy and power, while the headquarters and business units would gain power.

Most of the meeting was devoted to the present chairman’s efforts to help the country managers accept their new role as more of a “diplomat” locally and less of a business unit manager. They were clearly being dis- empowered to a considerable degree. My observation was that the chair­man described the new rules and handled the ensuing disappointment and obvious resentment in a most gentle and kindly manner, while reaffirming repeatedly the new reality of their positions. It came across as gently giving the disempowered country managers some advice on how their roles might be restructured in the future. When I reported these observations to my client, the incumbent chairman, he burst out laughing and said: “Ed, what you have just witnessed in that meeting was the worst bloodbath we have ever had; I have never seen our chairman more aggressive in putting down people and asserting the new power structure.” So much for my “under­standing” of the British culture and the culture of this company!

Sociologists have shown very convincingly how manners and morals, politeness, and tact are not “niceties” of social life, but essential rules for how to keep from destroying each other socially (Goffman, 1959, 1967). Our functioning as human beings requires us not only to develop a self­image of who we are but also a degree of self-esteem—a sense that we have enough value to continue to function. The word “face” captures this publicly claimed value, and the rules of the social order are that we should protect each other’s faces. If we offend or insult someone by not upholding their claims—l aughing at something serious, humiliating or embarrass­ing the other—it is a loss of face for both parties. Not only has one party failed to uphold his or her claims, but the other party has behaved rudely, destructively, and irresponsibly.

Thus the most fundamental rule of the macroculture in all societies is that we must uphold each other ’s claims because our self-esteem is based on it. When we tell a joke, others laugh no matter how unfunny the joke; when someone breaks wind in public, we pretend not to have noticed no matter how loud the sound. Human society of any sort hinges on the cul­tural agreements to try to uphold each other’s identities and illusions, even if that means lying. We compliment people to make them feel good even if we don’t believe it; we teach little children not to say “Look at that fat lady over there,” even though an obese person is clearly visible.

One reason why performance appraisal in organizations is emotionally resisted so strongly is that managers know full well they are violating the larger cultural rules and norms when they sit a subordinate down to give him or her “feedback.” To put it bluntly, when we tell people what we “really think of them” in an aggressive way, this can be functionally equivalent to social murder. Someone who goes around doing this is viewed as unsafe to have around, and, if the behavior persists, we often declare such a per­son mentally ill and lock him or her up. In his analysis of mental hospitals, Goffman showed brilliantly how “therapy” was in many cases teaching the patients the rules of polite society so that they could be let free to func­tion in that society without making others too anxious (Goffman, 1961). In more traditional societies, the jester or the fool played the role of telling the truth about what was going on, and this only worked because the role could be discounted and ignored.

To conclude, every group, organization, occupation, and macroculture develops norms around the distribution of influence, authority, and power. If those norms “work” in the sense of providing a system that gets external tasks done and leaves members in the group reasonably free of anxiety, these norms gradually become shared tacit assumptions and critical genetic elements in the cultural DNA.

As the world becomes more interdependent, more organizations, proj­ects, task forces, and joint ventures of various sorts will involve members from different nations, ethnicities and occupations. In the efforts of those groups to develop a working consensus, it will be differences in the deep assumptions about authority that will be most problematic. A special role for leaders will be to create cultural islands in which it will be possible for members to explore these differences to reach both mutual understanding and new rules for how to manage their own authority relationships.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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