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Winning the Power Play


Mary Lu Harding, C.P.M., CPIM, CIRM
Mary Lu Harding, C.P.M., CPIM, CIRM, Harding & Associates, Bristol, VT 05443, 802/453-5379,

84th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1999 

Abstract. What happens when our personal standards of conduct and the standards of the organization are not the same? What can we do to gain (or lose) power? We are immersed in the culture of our organizations. How can we influence it? This article explores ways to strengthen our influence and power inside the organization.

Each person has standards of behavior - what they will do and what they will not do (at least not without qualms of conscience). Organizations are composed of a collection of individuals. For many within the organization, the standards of the organization do not fit. If the individual's standards are higher than the organization's, then it will be highly unlikely that he or she will be at risk for a standards violation. They will not experience ethical conflicts at work unless the standards of the organization are so low that they are pressured to do things they consider questionable.

If the individual's standards are lower than those of the organization, there is a risk that actions which the individual considers acceptable will violate organizational policy. Under these conditions, it is important for the individual to learn the boundaries of those policies and the consequences of a breech. If the individual chooses actions which violate organizational policy, then they may be asked to take the consequences.

Corporate standards have two modes of expression: written policies and procedures and culturally accepted behavior. In many organizations, these are not the same. Culturally accepted behavior is the stronger of the two. Policy and behavior begin to diverge when a breech of policy is ignored. Each time policy is not enforced, it sends a loud message to the organization that the offending behavior is acceptable, and these accepted behaviors become stronger. The organization also becomes more and more legally vulnerable because it is establishing a precedent of non-inforcement of policies. If the situation boils over and results in a court action, organizational policies will offer little defense if the plaintiff can demonstrate case after case of violation of the policy which were ignored.

Double Standards. Double standards are always damaging to an organization. They generate cynicism, lack of respect for both policy and people, and a weaker sense of loyalty to the organization. They foster a sense of anger and disenfranchisement: "If they can do it, why can't I? It's not fair!" Unfortunately, they are also common.Double standards occur in two varieties: horizontal and vertical.

Horizontal double standards are created between functions in the organization when one function is allowed or encouraged to do something another function is forbidden to do. For example: salespeople lavishly entertain prospects and are generous with attractive gifts while the manufacturing and purchasing staffs are held to tight restrictions regarding what is acceptable to do or receive. It would greatly benefit many organizations to bring together their sales and purchasing functions to work out a commonly acceptable policy. Sales can discuss why they do what they do and why they think it works, and purchasing can present what effect it has within the organization and what activities lead to better relationships. Some organizations have worked out a solution and created one policy which applies to all employees.

Another area is the design community who develop new products: They are often the recipients of many benefits offered by potential suppliers who would like to have their product designed into your new product. Sometimes corporate policies in these areas are not explained or as rigidly enforced as they are in purchasing. One solution for this difference is training and an understanding of the consequences of non-enforcement.

Vertical double standards are different standards of behavior for executives than for employees. This often occurs under the guise of "executive perks" and also has some unintended consequences. Most common are a distancing between executives and employees and a lack of respect for management. There are unspoken messages in this type of double standard: executives have a natural right to these perks and employees don't; executives are smart enough not to be influenced by them, and employees are too dumb to be trusted with them. Executives are vulnerable when they become distanced from the employees. They become less and less aware of what is really happening in the business and more subject to insulation and being told what they want to hear. This creates an unhealthy situation both for the executive and for the organization.

How Corporate Cultures Are Created. The culture of the organization is formed by the accumulated behavior of its people over time. It includes the company stories or myths that get told and retold. Each carries a message about what is acceptable. It also includes executive behavior: vision, mission, goals and whether executive behavior models those or not. Executive behavior is watched by the whole organization and sends a very loud message about the values that will play out in the organization. Culture is also shaped by what people get away with. Peers watch what happens (or doesn't happen) and form conclusions about what is really acceptable regardless of what policy says. Unfortunately, the lowest common denominator that is allowed to continue will pull others toward itself (subject to the individual's personal standards).

To identify the current culture of your organization, look at:

  • What stories are told in your organization?
  • What was the last "incident" you remember?
  • What is the company policy regarding that incident?
  • What was the actual resolution of the incident?
  • What is the prevailing tone / topics of cafeteria chatter?
  • What behaviors are OK & Not OK ?

Improving Your Culture. If the culture of your organization could be healthier, what can be done to improve it? Although everyone has an influence, the greatest influence is at the top. Executive actions that give a clear message about what this organization is here for, what kind of organization we are, and what standards we choose to be held to has a powerful effect .......IF the executives behave that way themselves. Enforcement of organizational policies is also critical, not only for the cultural effect but also for its legal effect. Recognition and advancement of people whose behavior supports the desired culture is another powerful message. Who gets promoted? (The person who is a good cultural role model or the person who will do anything to get ahead?)

Managers at any level have strong influence over the organization beneath them, and can begin to improve the culture within their purvue by employing the methods listed above. Individuals also have an effect on the culture since it's composed of the accumulated actions of everyone. Taking a stand personally can have a significant ripple effect without explicit preaching.

Increasing Personal Influence. Anyone has the ability to increase his or her influence in the organization. However, the work to do that starts within. What others see is the natural consequence of internal changes. The first issue to address is self-perception.

Are you the victim of your circumstances? How that questions is answered has a profound effect upon both attitude and actions. Think about someone you know who you believe acts like a victim. What specific behaviors can you identify that leads you to think that way? What reaction does their victim behaviors produce in you?

People who think of themselves as victims have surrendered control of their lives to someone or something outside of themselves. Very often, these people really have been victimized, sometimes severely, maybe a long time ago. Victimization perpetuates itself when the victim labels himself or herself as such. Once the belief that "I'm a victim of ......" sets in, no attempt is made to take back control. That attitude communicates to others who then begin to treat that person as a victim. People who are inclined to be abusive can spot the attitude of victimization in an instant and often take full advantage of it, so the victimization continues and continues, and the victim gets to be right in their beliefs. The first step to increasing personal influence is to accept and believe that no matter how painful current circumstances may be, you are not a victim. In extreme situations, options may be limited, but actions still can be chosen deliberately and a direction can be taken which will lead out of this situation eventually.

To reclaim your power and combat a toxic culture, first define what you stand for. Become clear about what your standards are and what you will and will not do. Remember, personal standards and corporate standards need not agree. Once you have clarified your standards, look at what is going on around you and decide what limits are reasonable, livable and enforceable. Make those limits known to those around you and enforce them. Taking a stand and enforcing limits helps to return a sense of control. This strengthens the sense of dignity and worth. It is also not easy, especially enforcing limits in the face of those who would run over them (and who may have been running over them for a long time). It takes courage.

Quiet dignity speaks volumes. Treat all people with equal respect, and insist that you be respected. This means that callous behavior cannot be supported or ignored. It is possible to make known your non-support of such activities in a quiet manner with a comment or other action that gets the point across without fuss.

Value the truth. Tell the truth. Don't lie. Don't support others' lies. Truth is what is. A lie is an attempt to present fiction or fantasy as though it were real when it is not. For someone who is told one thing and sees another, the disconnect is at least uncomfortable and can be maddening. The person telling the lie loses credibility. Someone who lies easily and well is comfortable and practiced at it. The question is there every time: Is this the truth or not? People not only doubt the information, they distance themselves from the person rather than be taken in again by another con.

Keep your commitments. There is tremendous power in the strength of your word. When a track record of keeping commitments is established, people trust you. That trust creates power in the organization. If a commitment cannot be met due to changing circumstances, renegotiate the commitment before it is due. Acknowledge others who keep their commitments to you. Acknowledgement creates recognition and fosters reinforcement in the culture.

Choose powerful language and omit language that creates the perception of powerlessness. Certain words have connotations of power or powerlessness built in to them. Powerful words indicate choice and desire. The language of powerlessness denotes no choice (victimization). Some examples include:

Powerless Powerful  
I'll try Yes or No "Try" really means that I'll put in a modicum of effort, but I doubt that I'll get it done. Make a commitment for what is realistic and honor it.
I need I want "Need" indicates dependency and no choice. "Want" indicates desire and choice.
I can't I don't
want to
"Can't" indicates no option or no ability "Don't want" indicates free choice
I have to I choose to "Have to" indicates no choice or no option

Leadership. Once personal power and choice are returned. Each person has the option of chosing to become a leader. Leadership and management are not the same. Anyone in an organization can become a leader if they are sufficiently committed to an issue. Leadership is a choice, and it is by issue. One can become a leader in one area of life and not in another. The first trait of leadership is to care enough about an issue or area of life to invest the time to consider it carefully and come to a decision about how it should be (create a vision). When the vision of how it should be is strong enough, the person who developed it will naturally act in that way. Actions follow from belief, especially a strong belief. Others see the actions and want to share in the vision. When they understand the vision and choose to support it, they become followers. Since change is not easy, and will inevitably create some resistance, every vision will meet with a challenge sooner or later. What a leader does in the face of challenge is critical. If the leader stays the course, the challenge will probably be overcome. Also, the followers are watching. When a leader stays the course, his or her credibility with the followers is considerably strengthened. If the leader abandons the course, the followers will also. Leaders support their followers. Followers have work to do to advance the vision, but the leader has done it first. Experience puts the leader in an ideal teaching position, and good leaders educate their followers. Do you want to be a leader? What do you care enough about to invest yourself in?

Establishing a culture of integrity in an organization is a gradual process which requires constant nurturing. Every action of every person has an effect - like pebbles in the stream that eventually build a dam. Each person's actions contribute either to growth or to decline. Which do you choose? What risks are you willing to take?

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