Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 32;   August 5, 2020: Red Flags: III

Red Flags: III


Early signs of troubles in collaborations include toxic conflict, elevated turnover, and anti-patterns in communication. But among the very earliest red flags are abuses of power. They're more significant than other red flags because abuses of power can convert any collaboration into a morass of destructive politics.
The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Oil on canvas, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside. Courtesy Wikipedia

Recognizing early signs of trouble — red flags — in collaborations can help us deal with trouble while it's still in early stages of its development. And red flags can warn us when it's time to change course and find a different collaboration to join. I'm thinking of collaboration here in the broad sense — a team, a project, an organization, or even an enterprise. In earlier posts, I examined red flags that included toxic conflict, turnover, and a few examples of dysfunctional communication patterns.

Another set of red flags provides even clearer warning of trouble ahead. These are the behaviors generally termed abuses of power. Following Fiske and Berdahl [Fiske 2007], I take the term power to mean one's degree of control over the ability of others to achieve outcomes they value. And powerholders abuse their power when they employ it to achieve outcomes other than those for which they were granted that power or permitted to continue exercising it.

One example of abusing power is using it to "adjust" the general understanding of the causes of failures in one's own areas of responsibility. For concreteness, here's a scenario:

Frederick, the company CIO, had been the champion of moving major elements of the company's information technology (IT) infrastructure to "the cloud." Instead of operating its own data centers, the company would outsource generic data center services, while continuing to maintain, develop and deploy data-related assets that were specific to the company. To ensure approval of the cloud project, he pressed his engineers to create cost and schedule estimates that were "affordable." These estimates turned out to be gross under-estimates, in part, because of the pressure Frederick applied to the estimators.

But Frederick didn't want that narrative to become generally accepted, because it represented a threat to his career. So he devised a program of retrospectives, performance reviews, performance improvement plans, transfers, demotions, and terminations that created the impression that the under-estimates were entirely the fault of the estimators. Essentially, he used his legitimate authority over performance management processes and organizational learning processes to protect himself against criticism of his own performance.

In this example, instead of using his power in legitimate ways to prevent a recurrence of gross under-estimates, Frederick used it to shape a narrative that allocated full responsibility for the faulty estimates away from himself and onto others. That's an abuse of power in a pattern I call Misalignment-Between-Narrative-and-Reality.

Here are four other examples of red flags in the form of abuse of power.

Scapegoating former staff
One common Powerholders abuse their power
when they employ it to achieve
outcomes other than those for
which they were granted
that power or permitted to
continue exercising it
variant of the Misalignment-Between-Narrative-and-Reality pattern is Scapegoating-Former-Staff. In this pattern, the powerholder uses information that only he or she can verify to accuse former staff members of malfeasance, negligence, or other actions or inactions that account for whatever failure is in question at the moment.
This pattern is popular because of its unassailability. Since the former staff members are no longer part of the organization, they cannot dispute the powerholder's charges. Indeed, because they have moved on to positions elsewhere, the former staff members might not even be aware of any charges. And any current staff members who are aware of the charges and their speciousness tend not to dispute the charges against the former staff members, for fear of receiving similar treatment themselves.
Designated heroes
Perhaps the opposite of scapegoats are the designated heroes — people who can do no wrong, and who are consistently praised and recognized for both minor contributions and contributions generated by others. The existence of a designated hero is often an indicator that contributions by people other than the designated hero are unlikely to be recognized. And that means that ideas are valued not for their merits but according to their attributed authorship.
When that happens, the organization can become committed to courses of action that might not have been subjected to fair testing and evaluation. And that exposes the organization to elevated risk of making wrong-headed choices.
My definition of workplace bullying differs from some others. For me, workplace bullying is any aggressive behavior, associated with work, and primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others. (See "What Is Workplace Bullying?," Point Lookout for March 3, 2010) Bullying need not involve a pattern of aggression repeatedly targeting the same individual or individuals. A single incident is enough. And organizational objectives play no role. A perpetrator might cite organizational objectives as a "justification," but that isn't the primary reason why bullies bully. Bullies bully because they seek to harm others.
Perpetrators actually want bystanders to know that bullying is happening. Knowing that the bullies are harming their targets, and that no one is intervening, is part of the reward for the perpetrators. The fact that their superiors (if there are any) aren't intervening assures perpetrators that they can continue their nefarious activities unconcerned about adverse consequences for themselves. In most cases, a tacit agreement is in place: the perpetrator can continue bullying as long as production remains at acceptable levels.
And that's why bullying is a red flag. If it's happening, filing a grievance is unlikely to bring about an intervention, because the perpetrator isn't the only conspirator. The perpetrator's superior is also involved, as is the superior's superior, and on up the chain to the very top. Even if you aren't a target at the moment, you will be soon, unless you have a special connection to someone powerful enough to bring an end to the bullying altogether.
Denying risks
Those who have authority over resources must often respond to requests for resources to mitigate risks. In a typical scenario, the resource seeker has identified a risk associated with a project or policy, and needs resources to reduce the consequences of that risk if it materializes, or to reduce the likelihood of that risk materializing. Usually, the business case is so clear that the powerholder must approve such requests. In other cases, no immediate outlay is required, but the resource seeker might instead request that a financial reserve be set aside to support a response if the risk event occurs.
Risk denial is the pattern in which the powerholder declines to grant the resource seeker's request, or instead grants a scaled-down version of the request that's very likely inadequate.
Risk denial is an abuse of power if the denier is gambling that the project can proceed, or the policy can remain in place, with unmitigated risk. In effect, the powerholder is seeking success out of proportion to costs by betting that the risk in question won't materialize. If the risk doesn't materialize, the powerholder intends to claim credit for great success at low cost. If the risk does materialize, the powerholder (usually) intends to cast blame in someone else's direction.
That's why a pattern of risk denial is a red flag. Working in the organizational vicinity of a risk denier eventually exposes one to the risk of being blamed for the poor decisions of the risk denier. Even if one escapes blame, the organization must find a way to deal with the consequences of the risk event without having expended any resources to mitigate it, and without having reserved adequate resources to deal with its consequences. The organization is harmed, and might not recover. If it does recover, the price might be severe downsizing, which could affect almost anyone. Worse: risk denial is rarely a personal quirk. If one powerholder engages in risk denial, others probably do as well.

Abuse of power in its various forms can distort decision making, disrupt succession planning, and deflect strategic action in dangerous directions. Widespread or consistent abuse of power therefore tends to expose the organization to existential risk. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Cognitive Biases at Work  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


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Fiske 2007]
Susan T. Fiske and Jennifer Berdahl. "Social power," in Arie W. Kruglanski and E. Tory Higgins, eds. Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles. Guilford Publications, 2007. Available here. Back

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