The Manager: Master and Servant of Power

If differences in personality don't account for most workplace conflicts, what does? The power dynamics in the organization

The Idea in Brief

When one person in a work relationship holds power over another, difficulties ensue. Managers' and direct reports' perspectives are often diametrically opposed. Most managers expect their direct reports to be loyal, honest, and willing to follow orders. They view these expectations as completely compatible. Direct reports, however, often experience them as quite contradictory. How can you be loyal and disagree with your boss at the same time?

Managers occupy a dual role—they have direct reports, but also report to some one. Rarely, however, are either managers or direct reports able to put themselves in the others' shoes. This makes them oblivious to the power dynamics that hinder productive work relationships.

For example, your boss has significant influence over your career. This power may cause him inadvertently to impede your development. He may make you feel that it's too risky to admit weaknesses. This prevents you from getting his help in strengthening those weaknesses and advancing your career.

The Idea in Practice

The negative effects of hierarchical differences in the workplace can be summarized by the saying, "Trust flees authority."

Managers as Supervisors

Functioning in the supervisory role reminds managers how much real power their direct reports have over them. At the same time, however, they are often unaware of the ways they misuse their power over direct reports, or send them contradictory messages. For example, a manager may say he's only interested in performance, but then unconsciously reward excessively deferential behavior. The subtle message: the manager wants obedience for its own sake. Moreover, when functioning as supervisors, managers tend to be less concerned about compatibility issues—they just assume that a direct report will adapt his behavior to their preferences.

Managers as Direct Reports

Funny thing: the supervisory relationship looks remarkably different when viewed from below. When functioning as direct reports, managers tend to focus on the chemistry they have with their bosses: indeed, they often develop an outsized concern for pleasing their bosses. The reason? They forget that their bosses' performance depends on committed employees doing their jobs. Seeing themselves as too weak to be able to change their bosses' behavior, managers functioning as direct reports tend to be less interested in autonomy and more interested in just getting clear direction from above.

Power differentials can never be completely eliminated, even in the flattest organization. But there are steps managers can take to harmonize these almost diametrically opposed perspectives.

When Functioning as Supervisors, Managers Should:

• remember that the burden for maintaining a healthy work relationship falls primarily on them. Don't expect a direct report to take the initiative in complaining about a boss's unreasonable or unfair conduct. Useful questions for the manager to ask himself: "How would I feel if my boss behaved this way or demanded this of me?" and "What can I do to increase my employees' trust?"

• learn to monitor subtle cues, since direct reports are less likely to express their feelings forthrightly.

When Functioning as Direct Reports, Managers Should:

• remember that it's often easiest simply to ask bosses what they want

• put themselves in their bosses' shoes by asking themselves, "What do I care about most when I'm in the boss's role?"

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