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In Corporate America Powerlessness Corrupts

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They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

But what about powerlessness?   According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in an article in the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review, powerlessness can corrupt as well – but in a different sort of way.

In some large corporations, strategic plans are done by a few people at the top and then cascaded down to the rest of the organization.   These neat tidy plans, generated by a few, are passed on to the masses who get stuck with the not so tidy, not so pleasant, and messy job of execution.

Those who get hit hardest are those in the middle – middle managers.  Squeezed by scarcity of resources, hemmed in by bureaucracy, and treated as unimportant (“in the middle” – not executives), Kanter observes that, under some circumstances, these folks –  “get even”. 

They “get even” because, caught in the middle, they are powerless.

How Managers “get even” in the face of powerlessness

“Getting even” in the face of powerlessness can take these forms according to Kanter:

  1. Scarcity breeds resentment.  Fighting over scare resources, those managers and groups that lose in the resource battle were twice as likely to be characterized by intense rivalries and internal conflict compared to the winners.
  2. Managers spread powerlessness by limiting information and sneaking things in when they think no one is looking.  Kanter cites the case where the first time employees heard of layoffs at their company was when they were driving in to work.
  3. Powerless creates a blame culture.  Kanter cites an insurance company where a top officer known for “a big attitude without big accomplishments” criticizes people for not working hard enough. “They vent frustrations on the others who are even more powerless.  It’s like a cartoon sequence.  The boss chastises a worker, who curses his wife, who yells at the kid, who kicks the dog.” 
  4. The powerless retaliate through sabotage .  They slow things down by failing to take action.
  5. The powerless demonstrate negativity and low aspirations.  This shows up in “defensive pessimism”, learned helplessness, and passive aggression.

The Solution – Empowerment

According to Kanter

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Every change can be an occasion for empowerment in which people add their own hopes and ideas to common goals…

Giving associates opportunities to develop initiates and be recognized for them can result in small wins that propel big change.  Deep and wide involvement can spread power to tens of thousands in communications, thousands in brainstorming, hundreds on problem solving teams.

Great leaders build confidence  in advance of victory.  When leaders consider new directions, their list should start with an organizational culture that grows the power pie.

The take, and double take

The Kanter article is mostly about powerlessness at the levels of middle management of an organization.

What about powerlessness below the middle?  What happens to individual contributors who feel powerless?  Similar to Kanters description of behavior of the powerless at the middle level, what behavior can be observed below the level of middle management?  What are the behaviors in individual contributors who are powerless?

Escapism and helplessness

There is an interesting quote from a trailer of a movie called ‘New Skin” (read the article) about virtual worlds and the “escapism” these sorts of alternate synthetic realities can provide.  An alternate place “to be” – for some.

Humans want to be more than what they are; we are driven to be more than what we are.  A lot of players have what they perceive as dead-end jobs.  And they logon to these worlds and suddenly they’re someone with power.

Yes, it’s all true.  People want to be more than what they are.   And clearly, the “wanting to be, more than what you are” can not be accomplished by the current employment of these folks.  They see their job as “dead end’.  And so what do they do?  These folks find an alternate reality where there are different rules and where they can have power.  They can “be someone” – with power in this alternate, synthetic reality of virtual worlds.

So, what is one way folks deal with powerlessness?  Escapism.  That is like “giving up”.  That does not put one on the path to resolution.  It’s like accepting something you can’t (or ever could) change.  It is a demonstration of helplessness – giving up.

Technical Elitism

Another reference to powerlessness appeared in an article about Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert which appeared at

This undercurrent is constant in Adams’ work. He writes, “You can test a person’s importance in the organization by asking how much RAM his computer has.” The more expensive memory chips you find in a person’s system, the higher the rank, right? Read on: “Anybody who knows the answer to that question is not a decision-maker.”

“Dilbert” takes a familiar tradition of worker-championing populism and mixes it with a little nerd-championing elitism. Yet it never partakes of technogeek-cultist obnoxiousness — mostly because these technologists’ sense of superiority is so patently a compensation for their powerlessness.

It’s bad all the way down

So the Kanter reference to the “cartoon strip nature” of powerlessness may be right on…

 They [ powerless middle management ] vent frustrations on the others who are even more powerless.  It’s like a cartoon sequence.  The boss chastises a worker, who curses his wife, who yells at the kid, who kicks the dog.

So it’s bad all the way down.  Perhaps even more to the point is Kanters reference to helplessness

The powerless demonstrate negativity and low aspirations.  This shows up in “defensive pessimism”, learned helplessness, and passive aggression.

When top management and middle management pass down a culture of disempowerment, Virtual Worlds and technical elitism can be a couple of ways that individual contributors react/cope to this situation.

The writing (cartoon) on the wall

Dilbert is the main character in the comic strip. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an engineer. Although his ideas are typically sensible and revolutionary, they are seldom carried out because of his powerlessness.

Dilbert usually has no visible mouth or eyes, and in all but the early strips his tie usually points upward. While Adams has offered no definitive explanation for this, he has explained the tie at least as a further example of Dilbert’s lack of power over his environment.

The next time you see a corporate office filled with Dilbert cartoons you may want to take the opportunity to understand the presence of these cartoons in a new way.  From the perspective of the employees (individual contributors – would mamagers or above put this up? No.) that put up these cartoons, Dilbert is sort of hero with whom they can identify.  From another perspective, Dilbert is the essence of a person who can not escape an unempowered work environment which he hates and where he is devalued and has no career path – other than being downsized or oursourced)   Dilbert cartoons splattered through an office complex are signs of resignation  by those employees that put then up to an environment which they have no control.

Kanter says that powerlessness breeds helplessness and low aspiration.  I just wonder, for those who put up those Dilbert cartoons, if the character of Dilbert – someone they can feel comfortable with and identify with – is simply perpetuating (and teaching) their own helplessness in escaping a dead-end job in a dysfunctional organization.

Kanters solution of empowerment only works in some corporations.  For middle managers and individual contributors alike, the key is knowing when to stick and when to quit.  Even though people know they are in dead-end jobs, individual psychological characteristics of  insecurity, unwillingness to take risks, eroding skill sets, fear of leaving a comfort zone – all contribute to a situation which paralyzes people.  And is Dilbert not a poster child for this sort of situation?  Is Dilbert really any role model you want to follow?  If you want a dead-end career, then Dilbert is your role model.  It’s NOT the dysfunctional company that Dilbert works for that is the problem.  It is Dilbert himself – his helplessness – that is the problem.

The Dilbert Dilemma

Unfortunately, the Dilbert culture is creating and sustaining residents of Second Life, a coping culture of technical elitism, and “learned helplessness” more than anything else.  What is needed is a character in the Dilbert comic strip that can be the exemplar of creating and sustaining empowered employees that are engaged, contribute, and are aligned to the corporate strategic goals of their employer.

How about that? –  Scott Adams.  Where is the anti-Dilbert?  The Dilbert-messiah that can lead the current disempowered, helpless, and paralyzed Dilbert culture who currently read the strip to the promised land of an empowered workplace?

Think about it.  What’s possible?  Adams could be the pied-piper of thousands of corporations.  Working from the ground up, communicating through his ever-popular comic strip directly to millions of existing loyal readers,  do more to change employees attitude about their jobs than any group of management consultants could do from the top down.  The stage is set.  We know Dilbert and his personal failings and helplessness in his career.  Now lets see his successor.  Lets see Dilbert 2.0 – an agent of change for millions.

Written by frrl

August 2, 2010 at 6:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

4 Responses

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  1. “It’s NOT the dysfunctional company that Dilbert works for that is the problem. It is Dilbert himself – his helplessness – that is the problem.”

    And, like a good American believer that the solution is just around the corner if you keep on believing in your own responsibility for everything, you leave and end up in another dysfunctional workplace where it’s still your own fault. And then you go back to school to get trained to work in another dysfunctional workplace, where it’s still your fault. Only now you’re more stuck than ever because you’re up to your eyeballs in debt.

    Wherever you go it’s all diseased, but it’s your own fault for not finding the Shangri-la we’ve all been told is just around the next bend as long as we keep on plugging along. Then you get old, hold on to the last one long enough to squeeze SOME sort of retirement out of it while counting the years down, and finally get to slink off into the shadows to die. Quiet and out the way preferably, where you won’t make any one feel sad.

    It’s your own fault for not making reality bend to your will.

    Jesse the Scout

    April 25, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  2. Yes, that’s a perfect example of capitalism at its best: find a need and fill it better than anyone else. It’s all about competition, survival of the fittest, being the best, striving for growth and profit, etc etc. It’s a great system, works great, I love it.

    But internal to a company you don’t want one big winner. You want team work, cooperation, sharing, cross-training. I wonder why corporate internal and external behaviors are almost perfectly opposite.

    Elwood Downey

    August 6, 2010 at 1:56 am

  3. Try this. Here is a traditional canned answer to the question “why do companies exist, what is their purpose” Ans “To create shareholder value”

    How do you create Sharholder value? By selling lots of stuff and making lots of money.

    How do you do that?

    You make lots of money by making what customers want to buy – by pleasing customers. By making remarkable products. The more customers you please the more money you make

    Is that greed? I don’t think so.

    Apple gave us the Mac, iPod, music for 99cents a track, the app store for the iPhone, and much more.

    Apple makes money by making something that people want to buy. In fact, loyal apple people wait outside apple stores a day in advance to buy products.

    Is that greed on Apple’s part? I don’t think so.


    August 3, 2010 at 12:59 pm

  4. I find it curious that Capitalism works precisely because it acknowledges, indeed depends upon, greed. Yet the implementation of each company must be carefully orchestrated to avoid this very trait in order to maintain highest creativity and production.

    Elwood Downey

    August 2, 2010 at 9:51 pm

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