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

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


[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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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 Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A checklistKeep a Not-To-Do List
Unless you execute all your action items immediately, they probably end up on your To-Do list. Since they're a source of stress, you'll feel better if you can find a way to avoid acquiring them. Having a Not-To-Do list reminds you that some things are really not your problem.
Jack-in-the-boxNo Surprises
If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van GoghVirtual Conflict
Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
A schematic representation of a MOSFETBottlenecks: II
When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
Astronauts Musgrave and Hoffman install corrective optics during the Hubble Telescope's Service Mission 1How We Waste Time: I
Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share, but some use it more wisely than others. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways we waste time.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938Coming October 20: On Ineffectual Leaders
When the leader of an important business unit is ineffectual, we need to make a change to protect the organization. Because termination can seem daunting, people often turn to one or more of a variety of other options. Those options have risks. Available here and by RSS on October 20.
Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesAnd on October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

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
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!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
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.