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Advice to Career Beginners: The Basics of Company Power Haven’t Changed as Much as You May Think

November 6, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,

INVITATION TO INTERVIEW

By Jeffrey Pfeffer
(adapted from Academy of Management Perspectives) 

A young man whom we will call Matt recently graduated from a leading business school and joined Facebook's business-development unit, where, like many employees recruited to Silicon Valley, he was told something to this effect: "We're not political here. We're young, cool, socially-networked, hip, high- technology people focused on building and selling great products. We're family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially."

This description reflects a widespread belief that companies are either fundamentally different from those of old or are well on their way to becoming so and that we need new theories about power and influence that reflect these new realities. Such traditional ways of gaining organizational power as expressing anger or acquiring resources and using them to build a power base or eliminating rivals tend to be discounted. Surely, the reasoning goes, in a world where reputations get created and transmitted quickly and anonymously through ubiquitous social networks, people who resort to such bad behavior will suffer swift retribution.

In the face of such claims, both scholars and managers confront two basic questions. The first is whether companies and their employees have, in fact, altered so radically. The second is, if not, why not: what accounts for the staying power - the timelessness, even - of traditional  theories of power and influence?

With respect to the first question, there is not much evidence of change. Recent research shows that, notwithstanding the younger generation's supposed egalitarian values and ready acceptance of workplace diversity, women from leading MBA programs continue to be offered lower salaries and to progress less rapidly in their careers than their male colleagues. Meanwhile, relationships with bosses still go a long way to predict people's career success; organizational gossip is still with us, often with dire consequences for those targeted; and career derailments still await individuals with an inability to master political dynamics.

In sum, many things remain the same, as the case of Matt nicely illustrates. After being forced out of Facebook for reasons quite distinct from his job performance, he now works at another technology firm. He also uses an executive coach, whose advice to him and many other clients starts with urging them to practice some old and established principles of power and influence in their careers.

Which brings us to the second question -- what underlying mechanisms might account for the staying power of such traditional principles of power and influence? Several factors come to mind.

Hierarchy

The demise of organizational hierarchy has been advocated as well as predicted by pundits and scholars for decades. But hierarchy is a fundamental structural principle of all organizational systems, extending to animals and fish. The management psychologist Harold Leavitt, while hardly an apologist for hierarchy, argued that it fulfills deep-seated needs for order and security, a view that finds support in recent experiments in which subjects chose hierarchy over other social arrangements when confronted with a challenging work task. Interestingly, those subjects were young people, presumably of a post-hierarchy generation, which suggests that hierarchy will endure because it is a natural arrangement that does not have to be imposed from on high.

If hierarchies of power and status are inevitable, then, individuals will naturally prefer to be nearer the top than the bottom, meaning that the political dynamics and competition that characterize relations among employees are unlikely to have changed in the recent past or to change much in the future

Benefits of Bad Behavior

With the durability of hierarchy all but insuring that people will compete for status and advancement, what qualities are required to succeed? An important finding of the research literature is that the two dimensions most used to categorize individuals are warmth and competence and that the two tend to be inversely related. These findings, which surmount national cultural differences, recall the advice of Machiavelli, who, on pondering whether it was better to be loved or feared, famously chose the latter. They also have much to tell us about the close association that has likely existed throughout human history between anger and power. Instead of assuming explosions of temper and other bad behavior to be aberrant, management scholars should research the outcomes that may derive from being a so-called "bad boss" and engaging in self-aggrandizing and even bullying behavior. Since exactly these behaviors have characterized some of the most successful modern business leaders from a variety of fields (Steve Jobs comes readily to mind, as do Rupert Murdoch, George Steinbrenner, Jeff Bezos, Jack Welch, and Larry Ellison), scholars would do well to acknowledge both the downsides but also the potential individual (as distinguished from organizational) benefits that accrue to leaders behaving badly.

The Self-Enhancement Motive

Related to, but distinct from, motives for ascending company hierarchies is people's propensity, revealed in many studies, to rate themselves and their capacities above average. Such thinking has been implicated in many organizational phenomena, perhaps most significantly an orientation toward action that is strongly associated with power and the ability to inspire others to follow. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that self-enhancement is on the wane among the younger generations. If anything, their upbringing and the abundance of narcissism unearthed in a number of studies would suggest self-enhancement motivations exceeding those of their forbears. Illusions of superiority and control seem destined, then, to persist, contributing to the persistence of hierarchical organizational practices.

Us vs. Them: The Importance of Similarity

If people are motivated to think well of themselves, they are also motivated to judge favorably those similar to themselves. Such tendencies, common in organizational hiring, promotion, and review processes, make eliminating discrimination in organizations both difficult and unlikely. One consequence of this is that people are most likely to have successful careers in places where they are similar to those who hold power. Another is that individuals who develop the skill to imitate or mimic the powerful and who have no qualms about doing so will almost certainly have a leg up in advancing their careers.

Basking in Reflected Glory and Post-Hoc Rationalizations

Individuals like to bask in reflected glory by taking on the trappings, symbols, and colors of success. This helps explain why many will voluntarily work for organizations and bosses that are difficult and unpleasant. If need be, one can always rationalize the decision by noting the many ways in which the powerful individual or the company is actually better than the public perception. Also contributing to such rationalizations is the simple matter of reducing dissonance. To avoid the cognitive dissonance that someone hugely successful can be hugely flawed, people will reevaluate the powerful in ways that create or infer positive traits even if such traits are not real.

Let me conclude by noting that a search of the books section of Amazon.com yields 2.7

million entries with "new" as the search term, but only 295,000 for "old." This parallels the state of affairs in management scholarship, which would be well-served to be more concerned about what is true and less fascinated by what's new.

Even as neuroscience and insights into human evolution provide strong evidence of continuities in behavior over time and place, claims that things are different now proliferate, along with demands for novelty in our understanding of management. By fostering a persistent confusion between what is and what should be or what we would like to be, too many business scholars inflict harm on their students, who embark on their careers unprepared for what they encounter.

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Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is the author of 13 books, including Power: Why Some People Have It - And Others Don't. This article is adapted from a longer piece in the November issue of the journal Academy of Management Perspectives.

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