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Jensen Consulting Blog

January 7, 2011
Written By: Russell Jensen

I love Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  Or, be more accurately, I love her perspective and the way she challenges my thinking with her writing.  I read her article “Powerlessness Corrupts” in the July/August 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review over the holidays, and then found myself mentally toggling between it and the conversation I recently had with a client about empowerment.
Kanter asserts that powerlessness can have a destructive impact on organizations, and she observes that it is alive today, undermining the ability of businesses to execute on strategy at a time when many need to make rapid change.  Some of her key points are:
  • The “middle ranks” experience this frequently as their workload increases but their power and influence don’t.
  • A scarcity mentality breeds infighting and defensive behavior, which her research found more often in companies that “lost” in a prior recession.
  • Powerlessness is contagious, and is spread by managers who limit sharing important information and who foster a culture of blame.
Pay attention here, because it gets really interesting when Kanter describes the retaliatory and sabotaging behavior powerlessness begets; failing to act (pocket vetoes), defensive pessimism, learned helplessness and passive aggression.  We’ve all seen those behaviors at times, and they are destructive.  I can think of three clients right this minute who would say these words describe their culture at times.
Now think about this in the context of your business, which may be picking up some steam again after having survived some downsizing, a shift to playing defense and aggressively controlling cost and risk, may now be refocusing on growth strategies.   Perhaps over the past couple of years you’ve asked your people to do more with less, to stretch their roles to cross old boundaries, to work more creatively.  Perhaps you’ve worked hard to “empower” your leadership team and have pushed them to do the same with their people. 
Have your good intentions backfired?  Take a clear eyed look at the way things really work in your organization.  Are you seeing evidence of an empowered workforce, or are you seeing any of these warning signs of powerlessness corrupting your culture?
Veto Power.  Without thinking very hard you can identify one or two key people who become bottlenecks when they don't support something.  “Pocket vetoes” are all about power and rob energy from important change initiatives.
Buzz Killers.  Tangible changes in energy and mood depending on whether certain key executives are in or out.
We Don’t Fight Anymore.   It doesn’t take much to table a new idea.  “We tried that before” kills the discussion rather than revs up the debate.
Why Am I Doing This?  Work is more successfully delegated up as opposed to delegated down.
Yes, I Mean No.  Decisions made in meetings are frequently un-made in hallways after the meetings.  (See Veto Power)
Ready, Aim, Blame!  No energy goes into problem solving until the yelling and finger pointing have run their course. 
If you see yourself or your organization in any of these warning signs tune in next week and we’ll talk about some strategies for breaking out of the powerlessness trap.
Reference: Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "Powerlessness Corrupts,"  Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010.

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