Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Power, Character, and Respect: Machiavelli Is Beside the Point

Although I almost never post anything (other than blog post links) to Facebook, I posted the following to my FB timeline earlier today:
People fear power. People respect character.
Since a good chunk of my FB friends are poli sci geeks like me, I quickly got references to both Machiavelli (who obviously made this observation, more or less, long before I did) and Socrates. But as much as I still spend some of my professional life (including my last blog post) musing about politics, that wasn't really what this is about. Unlike good old Niccolo, I'm not interested in giving governments or government leaders advice on how to successfully run a country - which is good, since they're not listening to me anyway.

The context in which this observation was meant, and for which it is much more interesting, is organizational. Loosely, an organization is an entity with a bunch of folks arranged in some kind of structure (usually hierarchical) which is collectively trying to achieve some mission or set of goals. Within the organization, individuals have their own goals, motives, and incentives, giving rise to the oft-cited "organizational politics". One reason why I have had some measure of success in academic administration is that organizational politics follow many of the same laws and predictable patterns as other politics, so there is a connection between what I study and what I do.

One of the interesting challenges to leaders in organizations is the leader-follower dynamic (or, if you're an academic geek, the principal-agent problem). Leaders, of course, want to lead - meaning they want the people under them in the structure to do what they (the leaders) want. Indeed, much of what people think of as "leadership" boils down to "telling other people what to do and getting them to do it". This is a necessary function of leadership, to be sure - although the latter part (getting people to do what you want) can be tricky.

But many organizational leaders, I suspect, don't want merely to be effective in ordering others around. They also want to be respected and admired, including by the people beneath them in the organization. Part of this is ego, part of it may be a sense of efficacy - if people respect me, they are more likely to do my bidding (true).

And this is where organizations differ from, say, running a country - and why Machiavelli is beside the point in an organizational context. Because an organization, even a fairly large one, is still small enough that the relationships between individuals at different levels matters. I work in a fairly sizable university, with up to 2400 employees - faculty, staff, etc. We all work in a space that's fairly geographically limited, and in an organizational context where, while the senior leadership doesn't see everybody every day, there are opportunities for direct interaction that you don't have even in a town or municipality of similar size. The population of the town I live in is substantially smaller than the staff + student population of my university, yet I have far more interactions with people at the university (up to and including the president) than I do with the mayor or town officials of my town.

So relationships matter organizationally. And this is where leaders can get themselves in trouble. Because the higher up the food chain you are in an organization, the worse the information you get. People hate to tell leaders bad news, and they particularly hate to tell them they're wrong - because the leaders at the top have a lot of organizational power, and people are afraid of that power. So if a leader does something foolish that ticks off a lot of people, they're unlikely to hear about it or to see its effects - until the effects are so big and obvious they can't be ignored.

Unfortunately, being in an environment of mostly positive feedback all the time can cause leaders to confuse being feared with being respected. They may conclude that, since no one is criticizing them, everyone thinks they're doing a great job. This is, of course, a serious delusion that leaders have to go well out of their way to fix - if they even want to, which most of them don't.

I have heard many eloquent arguments about the importance of doing "full 360 degree" reviews of personnel, especially leaders. If you want to know how someone is doing, talk to their supervisor, talk to their peers and others on their level, and talk to the people who work for them and others beneath them in the structure - all with total anonymity and no possibility of knowledge or retribution (as much as can be credibly arranged). The benefits to such an evaluation, in terms of getting at the real truth of the matter, are obvious. I've also never seen an organization - including any of the five colleges and universities for which I've worked - do one, ever. It's hard to find a better idea so widely avoided.

I've thought of all of this recently because of a few events (the details of which I can't write about here) where I've seen people in positions of leadership do things that seem almost calculated to destroy respect. I don't think they ARE calculated - I think they are done out of ignorance. But because the people in question have power, the fear which that power generates mitigates (in the short run) the damage caused by the lack of respect.

In the long run, such people aren't doing themselves any favors. But even that is a probabilistic statement - lots of people who are not respected (and whose characters are highly suspect, if not downright despicable) nevertheless succeed in a professional arena. The fact that their organizations are probably measurably worse off for that success doesn't end up mattering much, because those losses are "opportunity losses" - things that might have been, had the leadership been better, but didn't come to pass. Being invisible, they trouble very few, least of all the leaders busy confusing fear with respect.

There's an open question on the end of all of this - given how prevalent these mistakes are, is it the case that organizational leadership selection processes are biased in favor of those who would lead by the use of fear rather than respect? Or are we simply seeing the distribution otherwise reflected in the general population - that most people, given the choice, would rather control through fear than influence through respect of character? That's a question far too large for a blog post, or even for a lifetime of research. But for myself, I know what sort of leader I would like to be if ever I am given that opportunity - and I continue to add to my stock of negative examples, gathered over a nearly 20 year career.

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