The exercise of power is not something that solely belongs to the realm of government. One could argue that nearly all organizations are prone to power games.
Daily examples abound: someone took undue credit for your ideas; you were next in line for a promotion, but a colleague with less experience got the position instead; an unexpected project failure leads to widespread scapegoating; another department was able to persuade top executives to increase their funding at the expense of your own; a company merger brings up the possibility of downsizing in your division and colleagues suddenly start acting aggressively.
Why do people get involved in power games? How can we aspire to deal with them? I will attempt to answer these questions in the following series of articles. This first article exposes some classical theories of human nature and the origins of power games.
For Hobbes, human beings are primarily self-interested. In the absence of strong, central, coercive social control, unregulated competition and conflict will result, and life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.” Let us call this Theory H. The effective Theory H manager enforces tight controls over self-interested and potentially disruptive employees.
We could contrast this with Theory R, based on the works of Rousseau, for whom people have a natural sympathy for their fellow humans, and are as interested in the development of others as they are of themselves. People are only selfish and competitive as a consequence of badly designed social arrangements, leading Rousseau to observe that “man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” The effective Theory R manager seeks to facilitate and support the collaborative development of employees.
For Machiavelli, however, both of these perspectives would be naïve and simplistic. People are not simply either, on the one hand, externally motivated, short-term focused and self-interested or, on the other hand, internally motivated and cooperative.
At times Machiavelli appears close to Hobbes, viewing people as ungrateful, cowardly, greedy, and false. This pessimistic view leads to a straightforward reasoning. If you rely on being loved, there is always a looming risk that people will abandon you when the tides turn and it is in their advantage to change sides. In contrast, if you rely on being feared, people will keep this fear in mind. Fear leads to much more predictable behavior than love.
But unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli’s view of human nature is one of a more fickle, changeable, and contradictory character. People are both “man” and “beast”: they may be inspired to be selfless, cooperative and virtuous or, if scared or left to their own devices, to be petty, narrow-minded, self-centered and vindictive.
The effective Theory M manager seeks to retain and develop loyalty whenever possible, for to do so increases the stability and amenability of his coworkers. He or she should avoid acts that unnecessarily deprive people of their basic dignity or leave them in a state of fear and insecurity, for to do so can stimulate a dangerous level of resentment – and resentment, in turn, breeds conspiracy. Leaders should therefore strive to be loved, but should not naively rely on this.
My next article, "Crisis and Confrontation," focuses on a more practical issue, namely how one should react when confronting a powerful figure. This issue is relevant because most of us, in one way or another, will likely feel the weight of someone’s power at some point in our lives.