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Putting the Focus on Power

“Could you please take the visitors to the meeting room, otherwise I’ll have to fire you.” – A terrible idea – but why exactly? And what are the more subtle ways we get so see such kinds of statements in the workspace? To be precise, the statement is not technically wrong. If it is part of somebody’s job to show visitors in and they repeatedly refuse to do it, they are creating a legal reason to get themselves fired.

What is interesting about this statement is not its truth, but the focus it places on the foundation of the leadership relation. We can look at this systematically by differentiating various foundations to the relation between leader and follower. The model goes back to Max Weber. In the first part of Economy and Society, an opus magnum with a befitting title, Weber introduces the various possible foundations of governance, understood as the chance to get obedience for specific instructions. We argue that these fundamental distinctions, originally made to describe the relation between a state and its citizens, also make sense when they are applied to the relation between leaders in an organisation, and the people they lead. They may apply to any form of intent to get others to do what one would like them to do. 

On a first level, there are three foundations of such a relation. One is violence, or more precisely, the threat of violence. If I hold a gun to someone’s chest, they do my bidding. In organisations, the threat of violence may be contained in the contract. The risk to lose one’s job is a threat of violence. The risk to undergo legal consequences because of some contractual obligations is a threat of violence. But also more informal threats, such as mobbing, bullying, public exposure or shaming, may be threats of violence. One of the possible reasons why we do something that is asked of us, is to avoid such cases of violence.

The second foundation is transactional. It consists in the compensation of our interest with the interest of the other. You give me this, I give you that. We pay our taxes, we get functioning roads, schools and infrastructure. We hand over the monopoly of violence to the police, and we get security. We obey the laws, and we get justice. In a company, if we do this, we get a bonus. If we do this, we get to do the kind of work that we find interesting. If we do this, we get a promotion, a training, a public applause that we deem valuable.

The third and final foundation is legitimacy. We do something because it makes sense. Weber’s focus are the three kinds of legitimate power. There is traditional legitimacy: it makes sense because that’s the way it was always done. There is charismatic legitimacy: it makes sense because we trust that leader. And then there is rational legitimacy: it makes sense because we understand it. In Weber’s subject matter of state and government, traditional legitimacy is exemplified by old aristocracies that hand power down for generations. Charismatic legitimacy may be the case of autocrats and populists who find people’s approval. And rational legitimacy is the foundation of modern bureaucratic democracies: there is a rationale behind the division of legislative, executive and judicative powers. There is a rationale behind the progression of income taxes. There is a rationale behind the health system, the educational system, the organisation of the military, the division between central and local government etc. In organisations, we may find traditional legitimacy embedded in cultural habits. Charismatic leadership can be found when it is connected to the person, and not to the person’s role. Rational legitimacy is found whenever the common assumption is that every decision, every request coming from leadership can be explained with compelling argumentation – even if the explanation is not always communicated. 

How do these differentiations play out as perspectives? When we go back to the three levels, violence, compensation and legitimacy, we will find that in any relation of leadership within an organisation, all three foundations are always present. People are usually bound by a contract and some degree of legal obligations. And even in a loose organisation such as a movement for a political or moral purpose, we find that if someone blatantly fails to deliver on their own promise, and damages the common good, people quickly resort to forms of informal violent sanction such as trolling, mobbing, or exclusion. In the same way, in any relationship of collaboration there is always a number of transactions taking place. It may include material goods, but also immaterial benefits that correspond to someone’s personal interest. And there is always a degree of legitimacy. The fundamental question, that makes all the difference, is: where is the spotlight? Where is people’s attention, where is the attention drawn to? What do people talk about, and what do they ignore or take for granted? This differentiation of focus is important, because the various perspectives relate in ways that build on each other. 

One way they relate to each other is in the form of fall-back alternatives. If we cannot convince somebody by appealing to the legitimacy of our claim, maybe we can get them to do it for us by offering them a benefit? If that doesn’t work, we may point out ways that we can do them harm, and in turn get obedience. 

However, there are two more ways in which the levels relate to each other, which may guard us from using the fall-back. One is that each fall-back level addresses a more limited level of engagement or performance than the other. Or, the other way round, the higher level we focus on, the more we can obtain. You are not contractually obliged to do that extra work, but I can give you a bonus. I don’t have the budget to give you anything for that extra work, but look at the situation: it just makes sense not to leave the customer out in the rain, and instead give that extra effort to solve their problem. 

The final relation is even more crucial: If we spend too much time on the fall-back levels, the effect is like an inflation on the levels above, and the potential of the above levels wanes. It may be technically correct to ask an employee to go fetch coffee for the guests, or make some photocopies, pointing out that in case they refuse we may have to fire them. But if we do that often, they will not be ready to do anything that is not specifically mentioned in the contract. The same goes for compensation. If we tell a teenager that they get a fiver if they tidy up their room, or if they go and fetch milk, they may soon not do anything for us unless we pay them. It is the same in heavily incentivised workforces: whenever we try to mobilise them to do something, out comes the mercenary reaction: “what do I get for it?”

How can you use these considerations? First, the model raises our awareness that there are multiple perspectives. And where there are perspectives, there is choice. We understand that to ask whether one of these perspectives is true may not be the most relevant question to ask. “We all work in order to get paid so we can pay our mortgage.” In most cases, this statement is true. We do have a mortgage or a rent, and we do need the salary to pay for it. But the much more interesting question is whether it is of any use to put that perspective in focus. Just because the statement about the salary is true does not mean it has to be at the centre of our attention. As Dan Pink put it: “The best way to deal with salary is to pay people enough so the topic gets off the table.” And that brings us to the second use of this model. Based on the nature of the relations between the various perspectives in question, we become more conscious about why we chose to focus on a certain perspective over another. We strengthen our focus on appropriate types of legitimacy, and only when we see that we cannot create impact with legitimacy, do we very consciously, and as briefly as possible, dip our focus on compensation, or even violence if necessary. 

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