The Management Power Shift

By | 2016-11-04T16:57:05+00:00 July 28, 2015|Best Practices, Insights, Viewpoints|

We talk a lot about “management 101,” the tried-and-true tenets of managing that have been passed down through the ages. Most of these staples are based on common sense and collective wisdom: set a good example; don’t humiliate your employees; be reasonable, rational, encouraging; project a calm sense of authority. And, some would say, most good managers have innate “people skills” that can’t be taught – your team has to want to follow you.

But we live in a complicated age, with profound generational differences in attitudes toward work/life balance, relationships with authority, and complicating issues such as the use of technology. My experience is that today’s skilled and educated employees – especially Millennials under 35 – are highly competent, confident, and respectful of those managers who have earned their respect. Compared to previous generations of employees, Millennials aren’t harder to manage, they just require a different style of management.

Managing in today’s world calls for an expectation of entrepreneurial experimentation, coupled with an unprecedented tolerance for failure. This requires a shift in the traditional corporate power structure that is a delicate balancing act; failure should be tolerated, but a line has to be drawn when it impedes progress. Without this change in thinking and behavior, the holy grail of innovation is almost impossible. Innovation may be an overworked business buzzword – at least it has replaced “new paradigm,” for which we can all be grateful – but invention is at the heart of true innovation. And there are few inventions that aren’t a result of trial, error, and failure along the way.

The management power shift starts with HR: A less structured and more instinctive approach to hiring is required. The art of great management begins with letting go of some of the traditional science of hiring. It requires a gut instinct for those who will succeed – and thrive – in a rapidly changing environment. Change is hard, and failure can be harder. In order to accommodate a less-rigid atmosphere of entrepreneurial experimentation, managers should seek out individuals who display kindness, courtesy, empathy, and a sense of humor – qualities that our changing workforce values. When combined with more easily quantified qualities such as intellectual curiosity and education, putting equal value on the softer personality traits makes for an organization that’s built to thrive. Furthermore, in an era where knowledge is becoming a commodity – anyone can learn anything with a few keystrokes – qualities such as imagination and entrepreneurial initiative can often trump experience. As management innovation expert Polly LaBarre has written in the Harvard Business Review, “Ideas like zero-sum thinking, profit-obsession, power, conformance, control, hierarchy, and obedience don’t stand a chance against community, interdependence, freedom, flexibility, transparency, meritocracy, and self-determination.”

There is a lot of evidence that these noble concepts are much easier to believe in than they are to effectively enact. Management as it is most often practiced today is a top-down feudal system based on over a hundred years of corporate habit. Feudal systems are built around a very concrete vision of power, a pyramid that exerts pressure from the top. This management system was designed to ensure control and efficiency – not innovation. The problems seen in today’s companies require organizational transparency regarding corporate goals and personal aspirations. In this age of social media and openness, collaboration has to extend from the very bottom to the very top.

Traditional management structure and techniques are based on power – power that is either taken or given. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, wrote a book several years ago with the provocative title Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t. Aptly described as a handbook for the power-hungry, Pfeffer’s basic tenet is that without power you’re impotent – no matter how talented or ambitious you are. Peter Ueberroth, the organizational whiz who headed up the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, said that power is 80% taken and 20% given. Both Pfeffer’s and Ueberroth’s premises are not part of the new generation’s way of thinking. It’s fair to say that power in the managerial sense is now almost equal parts taken and given in many successful organizations – which is not to say that it’s given without regard for skills and experience.

Professor Pfeffer also points out a rather disagreeable reality: Power is not dependent on intelligence or job performance. This may well be the case in certain organizations that are dependent on a chain of command that rigidly enforces top-down control, but in less-rigid organizations such as creative agencies and service operations the value is placed on collaboration and transparency, not any one individual.

Pfeffer does add a very significant caveat to his thesis: That power can’t be an end in itself – leaders need to “aspire not only to power but to goodness.” That said, while today’s younger employees may have a different concept of the use of power, they also have a highly developed concept of goodness. For example, they believe that it’s not only within one’s power to have a healthy work/life balance, but it’s within a manager’s power to encourage that healthy balance in the workplace. Pfeffer also talks about the place of networking and risk in business; conceptually these two terms have undergone radical change in recent years. He writes that networking is one of the basic tools for achieving power, but many older employees view networking as an unpleasant chore. Younger workers have baked networking into their business lives through the constant use of social media – its just part of the natural order of things. This crowd-sourced approach to problem solving and collaboration makes them more natural leaders in the connected age. Regarding risk, traditional managers extol its virtue with the caveat that risk is only worth it when attached to unusually high reward. Today’s entrepreneurial workforce respects risk but rejects the idea that there has to be an equation of high reward to make risk worth taking. In other words, the price of failure is acceptable as long as the collective good isn’t in jeopardy; it isn’t always about ego and personal power.

One final thought is about how we should define “hard work.” Webster’s online dictionary defines “hardworking” as “using a lot of time and energy to do work.” I would argue that today’s employee is more concerned with producing good work. No satisfaction is derived from putting in long hours on a task that leads to a mediocre result. Jason Friend and David H. Hansson, in their book Rework: Change the Way You Work Forever, put it very succinctly: “Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they use it up.” An employee who is truly motivated and inspired will find a way to accomplish the best-possible result without regard for his or her fellow workers marveling over their long hours and personal sacrifice. Today’s accomplished and successful manager recognizes “good work” and discourages the counterproductive nature that can be associated with “hard work.” Life shouldn’t be hard, and neither should work. The manager who strives to make the workplace challenging in a good sense, rewarding in a real sense, and fun in general will succeed in today’s environment of personal empowerment for all.

About the Author:

Robert Palmer
EVP, Digital Innovation Officer

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