Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 45;   November 9, 2005: Empire Building

Empire Building

by

Empire builders create bases of power within the larger organization. Typically, they use these domains to advance personal or provincial agendas. What are the characteristics of empires? How can we navigate through or around them?

Will noticed rapid movement across the empty cafeteria, and looked up from his coffee. Marian always walked fast, but now she was walking fast even for her, so Will knew something was up. She slid onto the bench opposite him in the booth, and said, "They're spinning off Metronome as its own company."

Bison on the U.S. National Bison Range in Montana

Bison on the U.S. National Bison Range in Montana. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Will was a little stunned, but more than that, impressed. Metronome had begun as a skunk works, and gradually morphed into a division and then to an operating company. "Lamson did it," he said finally, referring to Metronome's founder, then general manager and now Chairman and CEO. "He got so big that they couldn't hold onto him. Amazing."

Lamson had built an empire. Empires come in several varieties:

Trusts
Trusts are empires built around critical capabilities upon which much of the rest of the organization depends. An example is the IT director who uses the IT function as a power base, doling out favors to allies and punishment to the rest.
Blobs
Empires can be
costly to
the organization
Blobs gradually consume ever-larger segments of the organization. At first the consumed segments "make sense" but as the empire grows, it becomes more heterogeneous. Blobs tend to grow when there is a shortage of able leaders.
Federations
Federations are alliances of peers. Usually one of them is dominant, and the others follow his or her lead. Although they retain formal independence, the reality is more like the structure of the former Soviet Union — a dominant central power surrounded by dependent clients.
Colonies
Colonies begin life as outposts isolated from the parent organization. They gradually grow in importance, until the tail wags the dog. Lamson's empire was a colony.

Empires can be costly to the organization. Their rulers can shade decisions in favor of their empires, which can subordinate organizational interests to the interests of the empires. To maintain control, empire builders often duplicate functions that already exist elsewhere. And talented employees who happen to be attached to business units that suffer under the empire might be more likely to voluntarily exit the organization.

Empires present both opportunities and risks to the people in and around them. For the people of Metronome, the financial rewards and career opportunities can be significant. And shareholders can benefit too. But this is the brighter side of empire.

Empires can make the organization less competitive, and less able to offer opportunity to its employees. If the problems become obvious enough, interventions can include reorganization, replacement of management, or even disciplinary action. If you're working in an empire now, prepare for that future day. Refresh your network, and search for alternatives. Be ready to move much sooner than you think you need to. If you wait too long, you might become part of a stampede. And then you'll have to walk even faster than Marian. Go to top Top  Next issue: In the Groove  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A hug about to happenUnwelcome Workplace Hugs
Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
President Richard Nixon resignsProjection Errors at Work
Often, at work, we make interpretations of the behavior of others. Sometimes we base these interpretations not on actual facts, but on our perceptions of facts. And our perceptions are sometimes erroneous.
A fiddler crab, resident of the Ashepoo Combahee Edisto (ACE) Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve in South Carolina, USACommunication Traps for Virtual Teams: II
Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
Male Red-Winged Blackbird displaying during breeding seasonOn Noticing
What we fail to notice about any situation — and what we do notice that isn't really there — can be the difference between the outcomes we fear, the outcomes we seek, and the outcomes that exceed our dreams. How can we improve our ability to notice?
A fawn resting in sunlight-speckled high grassHidden Missions
When you meet people who seem unfit for their jobs, think carefully before asking yourself why they aren't replaced immediately. It's possible that they're in place because they're fulfilling hidden missions.

See also Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.