Power is the biggest obstacle to positive change in the evolving modern workplace.
“Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
– John Dalberg-Acton
“Got to give us what we want!
Got to give us what we need!
What we got to say:
Power to the people, no delay!
To make everybody see
We’ve got to fight the powers that be!”
– Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
In less than a decade, three-quarters of the global workforce will be members of a generation that demands a transparent, egalitarian, socially positive work culture…precisely the opposite of the hierarchical structures power has built over the last century.
You’ve seen the statistics – misapplied power in the workplace has led to eye-popping levels of employee disengagement and turnover, or outright defiance. The time has come for workplace leaders to embrace change and fight the powers that be. The goal isn’t workplace anarchy, it’s the development of a new type of bottom-up, distributed power rooted in the understanding that employees run companies.
What kind of power must we fight? The kind embodied in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of “power” – “the ability or right to control people or things.” Control – force, intimidation, threats – has no place in the culture companies must build to attract, engage, inspire, and retain the talent that creates marketplace winners.
That winning culture relies on power, too – empowerment. Ordering or forcing an employee to do something is self-defeating power. Empowering an employee to choose actions that are good for the organization, good for customers and colleagues, and good for the employee is power that creates, not destroys.
Hierarchical power is fossil fuels – it creates workplace pollution, imposes high human costs as people seek to find and extract it through office politics, and in the end it’s a finite resource destined for exhaustion. Empowerment is renewable energy – clean, infinite, and, like fusion, creates more dynamism the more it’s used. Heavy-handed workplace power produces disengagement and unhealthy “shadow organizations,” where creative, innovative employees are forced into furtive secret cells detached from the organization at large. Empowerment creates organization-wide drive to innovate, collaborate, and achieve.
To fight the power, let’s destroy management in favor of leadership. Management is about manipulating resources to get a known job done. Leadership is about creating productive change for jobs not yet imagined. Managers have employees. Leaders have followers. Managers can’t inspire change because change contradicts their job description. Leaders inspire change that can grow to dominate markets.
You can see how inappropriate workplace power has become when you look at the generation that will soon comprise 75 percent of the global workforce. They are motivated less by money than by the ability to make a difference. They demand honesty, transparency, collaboration, and trust from their organizations. They choose jobs based more on quality corporate culture and “meaningful work” than on pay. More than 90 percent of them believe a company should be judged on social impact as much as profit – and three-quarters believe organizations should make “doing good in the world” a central part of their mission.
To people like this, power has always said, “Stop dreaming. Go back to the hive, Worker Bee, and do your job. Your paycheck is your reward.” The sun has set on this sort of thinking. What’s the point of companies going to great expense to recruit smart, flexible, innovative people and then ordering them to sit at their desk and do what they’re told? This destroys their value (and values), and they’ll inevitably flee.
Organizations must fight the power to achieve the flattest possible organizational structure, and build a culture dedicated to maximum employee empowerment. When companies recruit innovators – and today every company must – it’s essential they maintain an environment where innovation flourishes. What is that environment? Less power, more empowerment.
To some people, an organization full of empowered employees energized to innovate and collaborate as needed to move the company forward sounds like an undisciplined free-for-all where nothing gets accomplished. In reality, experience at empowered companies shows that an organization’s collective ability to meet challenges, take swift advantage of opportunities, and respond quickly to threats is much greater when those responsibilities are distributed as widely as possible.
I’m not an unrealistic utopian. I understand how hard it is for senior people in an organization to voluntarily blow up the cushy nests they’ve spent decades fighting for, building and feathering. It’s painful for even far-sighted leaders to sacrifice the perks and the power they’d have if they retained more hierarchical cultures.
But there’s no alternative. Given the emerging realities of the marketplace and the workforce, leaders can try to hold onto old-fashioned power and see their organizations ossify into irrelevance, or they can join with their employees to create cultures of empowerment.
As Public Enemy says in its iconic song “Fight the Power” – which could be the global anthem of tomorrow’s workforce – “Give us what we want! Give us what we need! What we got to say: Power to the people, no delay!”