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The power shift: Managing peers not subordinates

Tom Cheesewright

Tom Cheesewright

The day of the all-powerful leader is over. Tom Cheesewright says the future is all about collaboration and co-operation, not command and control

The nature of power is changing. So says Moises Naim, thinker, writer, economist and former minister in the Venezuelan government. He says that power is now “easier to get, harder to use, and easier to lose.”

Naim’s argument is compelling. He points to the first resignation of a pope in 600 years, protest rallies changing governments around the world, insurgents waging war with a fraction of the resources of their enemies, and hedge funds that out-earn the world’s largest banks. Power is being distributed away from the large corporate bodies and into the hands of individuals. But what power remains is also “decayed”. Less meaningful.

It feels to me that the same thing is happening inside organisations. Management seniority carries much less potency than it once did. Rigid hierarchical org charts are now a little fuzzy. Even the most junior recruits carry some influence.

The reasons for this are many. Our office culture is now more relaxed and informal than perhaps it once was. Bosses are encouraged to walk the floor, talk to everyone, gauge feedback on the way the business is operating. There is more interest in performance beyond the raw numbers.

Societally there has been a shift as well. Class barriers remain, as strong as ever in places. But most of us now have a window into how the other half live, be it via television or social media. With the mystery has gone the deference. A public school education will still be an advantage but it no longer confers automatic seniority.

Social media has been a vital factor, particularly Twitter. Here anyone can talk to anyone, and questions and statements can quickly be repeated and reinforced by thousands. Twitter offers individuals access to a level of corporate power. It makes anyone in an organisation visible, and exposes them to direct and public communication with their peers. I’ve spoken to a number of junior individuals in large organisations who may be ten rungs below the CEO in the formal hierarchy, but are happy to banter with them via this medium in a way they might never have done in the office.

Accelerated change

All of these things have changed rapidly. And there is an argument that it is the pace of change itself that confers greater power on new, young entrants to the lower ranks of the hierarchy – that there are things that new recruits understand that their seniors don’t, with digital technologies, the web, social media being current examples. Having grown up with these technologies, the young have an appreciation for the connected nature of things and an instinctive grasp of the user interfaces that their elder counterparts may not have had the opportunity to develop.

This certainly gives the young an advantage, and makes them worth listening to in certain contexts. But I think its importance can be overstated. These skills mean little without the framework in which to apply them. This framework of assessing, planning, decision making, communicating, time management and other skills is rarely in place when someone joins the workforce. In fact, I have often found the weakness in new recruits is the ability to understand what they don’t know, recognise when to listen and learn, and when to apply the skills they do have.

Instead, the new equality in the workplace is a natural rebalancing of what was always a somewhat cumbersome power structure. It allows us to take advantage of everyone’s skills and knowledge as we need them rather than waiting for people to gain seniority before they can truly contribute.

The pace of change is not the reason for this transformation, but it is the reason that this transformation is important. Markets are changing faster than ever. Identifying potential responses often requires an understanding of new possibilities, and an external perspective. In a less rigid hierarchy but with the right frameworks in place, junior members of staff can contribute these things.

The balance of power has undoubtedly shifted in most organisations and this is largely a change to be welcomed. Managers need to understand how to create a balanced environment that appreciates and encourages contributions but also maintains a level of discipline. Because while power may have dispersed and decayed, it remains important in directing and driving an organisation and its employees. Sometimes the fastest way to learn, and the most powerful choice you can make, is to do what you’re told.

Follow Tom on Twitter @bookofthefuture


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