Column: Management of Power – The Slytherins Have Won

Column By Elena Yang

Management of Power: the Slytherins have won

In the last entry, I noted that those who craved extreme power seemed to be one dimensional in their evilness and their use of power was inevitably unidirectional. 

This doesn’t happen very often in real life – thank goodness – and probably even less likely in organizations, one hopes. 

However, in modern organizations, most managers with a lot of power rather resemble those described for the Slytherin House members in Harry Potter books; by that I mean most managers, especially at the top levels, make their way (acquiring their power) through their network of connections. [Occasionally, we do encounter some thoughtful managers and CEOs and their organizations do seem to provide the few oases these days.] 

It is not without good reason that the expression “going postal” has been unfortunately gaining some staying power.

I don’t have research evidence to back up this assertion, but: How many people in your circle of friends and colleagues actually love where they work? 

While the majority may not “go postal,” frustration at work places has been mounting. So, a couple of years ago, the incident with a Jet Blue flight attendant – who told a passenger off, grabbed some cans of beer and exited the plane via the emergency chute – taught a less lethal form of venting and made the steward a hero figure. 

“Doing a Jet Blue” will be the next adopted expression, certainly a better one in that it doesn’t involve loss of lives.

Why do I mention this? And Why do I think that Slytherins have taken over? Especially in the face of my advocacy of Appreciative Inquiry?  I have ideals, but I am not blind to reality. 

Most of this organizational frustration concerns people working in medium to large organizations. It doesn’t mean that the smaller entrepreneurial ones are free from abusive demonstrations of managerial power, but in general, large organizations share similar management problems. 

And the Slytherin phenomenon largely applies to the top tier of executives and CEOs; it is rare that people would move to that level without demonstrating that they have acquired similar lineage of birth or schooling and have moved around in the “right” kind of circle of friends and colleagues. 

Remember, Slytherin House emphasized the importance of pure blood in wizards and witches: 

You’ll make your real friends,

             Those cunning folk use any means

             To achieve their ends.” 

  • From the “sorting hat’s song” in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

While extreme-based power does not course through organization corridors unchecked, and usually not for long, there are plenty of managers who would use a  combination of secrecy, fear, innuendos, concealed threats, and half-truths to subtly (or not) move subordinates to do the work, and to grow his/her power base for the sub-units/he manages. 

I sometimes think that an inconsiderate controlling boss is worse than a downright nasty one against whom I have more legitimacy to rebel or fight. However, if one feels powerless in changing jobs, then, it doesn’t much matter how bad the boss may be.

Let me use LANL as platform in this space. I worked at the lab for a short while and certainly have known plenty of people from whom I have heard stories to use for examples. 

LANL’s organizational structure is heavily top-down, with each of the 15 or so associate directors sitting on his/her silo-like mini empire.

I say “silo” precisely because each director has little incentive to consider working with others to create some synergy, especially when DOE, NNSA, and LASO have individually and collectively helped create enough obstacles and landmines for the Lab. 

In such an atmosphere, I can appreciate how the ADs might feel the need to protect their territories. Such sentiment parallels DOE’s profoundly dysfunctional organizational structure: everyone from middle management up seems to be obsessed with keeping and growing his/her pot of money and mission. But that’s another story. 

Back to the lab. One particular associate director’s organization’s mission is about compliance for safety and security; let’s call him Tom. Tom is a very smart man; he holds his cards very close (secrecy.)

To make sure that his empire gets good performance reviews (so he could receive a bigger bonus at year’s end), he would laser in on all the compliance rules and enforce them with a tank-load of power, the scientific research be damned. 

Where a scientist might previously devote 50 percent of the time in a week to actual research work, she now probably needs to devote 60 percent of the week to filling out forms, attending meetings, exercising vigilance about her environment and her co-workers.  

God forbid if an innocent accident were to happen, as there would be a “critique” committee (feels a bit like Communist China), which could escalate into a weeks-long investigation before making recommendations. 

And often the recommendations morph into more rules, whether anyone else needs them or not. Not even a dog would go looking for such ways to limit his survival prospects!

So, Tom does this, in the name of assuring good safety and security, and only in those areas. He does hear and seems to understand the needs of other associates (of equal rank) whose missions are accomplishing scientific work. 

He makes sympathetic noises (adopting half-truths) about their causes and desires but has never actually done anything to advance them. 

He does court a good relationship with the director (very cunning.) And since DOE’s annual review emphasizes safety and security, Tom feels vindicated in winning good review scores, as if it’s for the good of the whole organization. 

Instead of advocating on behalf of the whole organization to fend off some of DOE’s and auditors’ demands, he not only goes along with them, but actually goes even further. 

It’s all about him. In a fragmented organization where separate silos do not have incentives to complement each other, I could almost understand Tom’s priorities and his methods. 

But he knows perfectly well what he is doing; in the face of what he could have achieved for the benefit of the Laboratory, his choice of using his powers for his own good is hard to forgive.  

And yet…  Most managers are decent people in their private domain. Their managerial practices are, more often than not, dictated by the system dynamics of which they are only a part.

The tragedy is that they are unaware of or unwilling to concede the system force; they think they are largely in control. But the ultimate tragedy is the people on whom their decisions impact.

Most of the managers are not purely evil or bullying as portrayed in fiction, such as are so easy to hate as in the Harry Potter books. 

In reality, they often have more complex personalities, behavior and motivation. However, the archetypal descriptions do give us some rules of thumb by which to gauge our work environment. 

Speaking of rules of thumb, Robert Sutton, a professor of Stanford University, wrote a book titled, “The No Asshole Rule,” gives good rules of thumb for spotting assholes, who never fail to use bullying power:

  • Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
  • Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his/her venom at people who are less powerful (Mr. Sutton’s emphasis) rather than at those people who are more powerful? (pg 9)

A manager doesn’t have to scream, yell, or use nasty words to make subordinates feel oppressed or enervated. Sarcastic tone or innuendos would do just fine. 

But I think the most telling is when managers behave very differently depending on the power status of the audience.

So, while these rules may be written specifically about “assholes,” the answers to these yardstick questions don’t have to be just yes/no; different degrees under “yes” would be indicative. 

A simple example on a small scale illustrates my point: A manager who deliberately keeps someone waiting way past the appointed time is being a bully. 

I have known managers who actually didn’t do anything serious, perhaps signing some papers, or reading non-urgent documents, while keeping people waiting for another 15 minutes or beyond. 

To what end? Other than throwing around their managerial weight, just because they could? Most of them use this power mainly to appear as if they are important, probably without thinking, not realizing that they are being bullying. 

Inevitably, behind such display of power is a sense of insecurity. In such a case, the bullying behavior probably is the least troublesome; more insidious is the accumulated effects of various power abuses on the people at receiving end.

There is never a need to use bullying power.

I came across this fable, “The legend of the Two Wolves;” I really like it.

An elder was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me; it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil – he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person too.” They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old man simply replied, ‘THE ONE YOU FEED.’”

Harry Potter’s usual first choice was “expelliarmus“ to disarm his opponents while Voldemort always used “Avada Kedavra” to kill, be they enemies or innocent bystanders.

So, my problems with a lot of managers is that they don’t make distinctions in applying their powers; they don’t think hard enough to realize and grasp the far reaching impact of the decisions they make on people’s lives, both inside and outside of the organizations.

Today’s entry is downright depressing. My apology; sometimes, I need to vent a little. I’ll relate some positive images next time. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.


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