Rosabeth Kanter (1979) argues that much of what is labeled “poor management” in organizations is simply individuals protecting their diminished power bases. Instead of criticizing these managers as incompetent, she proposes we bolster their feelings of personal power. If we solve the real problem of perceived lack of power, the undesirable symptoms of poor leadership often evaporate. This point of view is consistent with the principles discussed in this chapter. Assignment In this exercise, you are asked to give advice to individuals who feel powerless.
For each of the situations below, form groups to explore opportunities for enhancing the power base of these three individuals. Prepare to report your recommendations. Situation 1: First-Line Supervisor Kate Shalene has been a first-line supervisor for six months. She was proud of her new promotion, but surprised to discover she felt increasingly powerless. Instead of being a stepping stone, this position was feeling more and more like a dead end. Managers above her were about her age and the hoped-for company expansion never materialized.
She was not a central part of the organization, and she felt no one ever noticed her unless she messed up. She was expected to be supportive of her subordinates, but they never returned the favor. She was expected to absorb their flack without support from above. In general, she felt as though she was constantly “getting it from both ends. ” Her job was extremely rule-bound, so she had little discretion in what she did or how she did it. She had only modest control over the pay or benefits of her subordinates, because their union agreement left very little flexibility.
So she felt powerless to reward them or punish them in ways that really mattered. As a result, she found she was more and more apt to impose rules to get subordinates to do what she wanted. She became increasingly jealous of any successes and recognition achieved by her subordinates, so she tended to isolate them from people higher up in the organization and from complete information. She lost her penchant for informality and became increasingly rigid in following standard operating procedures. Predictably, her subordinates were becoming more resentful and
less productive. Situation 2: Staff Professional Shawn Quinn came to the organization a year ago as a staff professional. He believed it might be a way for him to achieve considerable visibility with the top brass, but instead he felt isolated and forgotten. As a staff officer, he had almost no decision-making authority except in his narrow area of expertise. Most of what went on in the organization occurred without his involvement. Innovation and entrepreneurial activity were completely out of his realm.
While some of the line officers were given opportunities for professional development, no one seemed to care about his becoming more experienced and capable. They saw him only as a specialist. Because his job didn’t require that he work with others, he had little opportunity to cultivate relationships that might lead to contacts with someone near the top. What hurt was that a consultant had been hired a few times to work on projects that were part of his area. If consultants could be brought in to do his work, he thought, he must not be very important to the organization.
Shawn found himself being more and more turf conscious. He didn’t want others encroaching on his area of expertise. He tried to demonstrate his competence to others, but the more he did so, the more he became defined as a specialist, outside the mainstream of the organization. Overall, he felt he was losing ground in his career. Situation 3: Top Executive May Phelps has been a top executive for three years now. When she obtained the position, she felt that her ultimate career goal had been achieved.
Now she was not so sure. Surprisingly, she discovered myriad constraints limiting her discretion and initiative. For example, the job had so many demands and details associated with it that she never had time to engage in any long-term planning. There always seemed to be one more crisis that demanded her attention. Unfortunately, most of the constraints were from sources she couldn’t control, such as government regulations, demands for greater accountability made by the board of directors and by stockholders,
union relationships, equal opportunity statutes, and so on. She had built her reputation as a successful manager by being entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative, but none of those qualities seemed appropriate for the demands of her current work. Furthermore, because she was so mired in operations, she had become more and more out of touch with the information flow in the organization. Some things had to remain confidential with her, but her secrecy made others unwilling to share information with her.
She had assistants who were supposed to be monitoring the organization and providing her with information, but she often felt they only told her what she wanted to hear. May had begun to hear rumors that certain special-interest groups were demanding her removal from the top job. She responded by becoming more dictatorial and defensive, with the result that the organization was becoming more control-oriented and conservative. She felt that she was on a downward spiral, but she couldn’t find a way to reverse the trend. “I always thought the saying ‘It’s lonely at the top’ was just a metaphor,” she mused.