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Power and responsibility


The head of a company (e.g. the CEO or founder) often complains about subordinates who are not ready to take charge of serious issues. He (or she) is convinced that they tend to use every opportunity to avoid responsibility. “I have to decide everything by myself,” the boss complains. In turn, senior managers at the same company complain about the boss who is not ready to share his (her) power and tries to control everything. What is the real truth?

I have seen this situation many times in different countries. Complaints like those described above are typical both for large companies and small enterprises. The tired, exhausted CEO, convinced that his employees are always trying to shift responsibility to their boss. The tired, demotivated managers convinced that their boss is just not ready to delegate authority.

In the majority of companies, one can easily find a formal organizational chart which shows who is whose boss. Theoretically, it can also help to find out who’s responsible for each aspect of the business. Some companies have written rules concerning responsibility, helping the senior managers to know exactly what they can decide by themselves and what they should ask permission to do. But informal communications are always more important than formal boundaries of authority. Sometimes a manager technically may have a right to sign some kinds of documents, but in reality their boss controls them every time they do so. In some businesses (sometimes even in large ones), the only real source of power is the CEO.

A lot of enterprises (and many managers) try to solve the problem by preparing long and detailed documents in which they try to establish the borders between the authority of different senior managers. Even if it helps for some time, sooner or later a new challenge (not mentioned in these documents) appears. It may cause a lot of problems. Or at least a lot of arguments. So from time to time the documents will not be of much help.

According to many sources, human nature is still approximately the same as it was many years ago, when we lived in the forests, hunting, fishing and struggling hard to survive. At that period of time, we were more similar to wild animals than to human beings. And we lived our lives in accordance with the basic laws of nature – the strongest survive. Mother Nature taught us not to ask for permission. If we saw an opportunity to prolong or improve the quality of our lives, we had to take it without giving it a second thought. We were the only masters of our lives; we didn’t have any senior managers and CEOs above to ask for power, so we just did our best.

One could say that people in contemporary society are highly socialized savages. On the one hand, our psychological nature was shaped many years ago, when we (technically) were not complete human beings. On the other hand, we are all members of the post-industrial society who have to respect the rights and feelings of other people and who want to be respected in return. Years of formal education and working as ordinary clerks in the earlier stages of our careers taught us that there are “higher-ups” above us who are “in command”. These higher-ups have some authority and we are not usually allowed to cross the boundaries set by them. And, if we want to do so, we should ask for permission.

And if our higher-ups for any reason are not able to set visible and explicit boundaries, we may find ourselves puzzled and confused. We typically start to ask questions, and if we don’t get comprehensive answers, we tend just to ask even more questions, waiting for clear instructions. But as practice shows, this is not a very successful strategy. It is more useful and effective to use all the good “savage” methods.

It is not a new idea that a boss and a subordinate psychologically play the roles of a “father” and a “child” (regardless of the sex of the “father”). The “father” has to protect his “child”, but at the same time he has some rights to punish as well. The “child” should obey the rules in order to be protected, he may be punished by the “father”, and he has to ask permission to do a lot of things. And this happens even in very democratic countries – simply because it is still a part of our nature.

Just imagine a teenager who asks his (or her) father: “Hey, Dad, could I go to a nightclub with my friends to drink some beer, dance and hang out until 5 a.m.?”. The answer will obviously be no, especially if the father is quite overprotective, even though the kid is psychologically adult enough to bear responsibility for his own actions.

Approximately the same scenario takes place in companies where the boss (e.g., the CEO) is also quite overprotective. His subordinates try to get some power and are ready (at least they say so) to take responsibility for their own decisions.

What should senior managers do in such a situation? First of all, the subordinates would do well to understand why their boss is so overprotective. In the vast majority of cases, the reason is quite simple and clear – he (she) is not that self-confident. The reason why he (she) tries to limit your authority is because of the fear that things will get out of hand if he (she) stops having complete control of everything.

When it comes to such fear, all the usual reasoning is useless. You can’t just persuade your boss that you are professional and experienced enough to manage your own tasks by talking to him (her). Thousands of words won’t help, because fear is a very strong immanent emotion which can’t be easily eliminated, even with compelling arguments. Fear is a basic instinct, as old as we are, and in the course of thousands of years it has helped us avoid danger. What word is more powerful than this primeval feeling?

I have worked as a manager at different levels of corporate hierarchy – from the bottom to the top, right up to the CEO’s chair in a big nice office. And during those years, I was taught that the most ineffective way to get authority is to ask for it. Power can’t be given, it can only be taken. By the one who needs it.

It mustn’t be taken literally. You don’t have to attacking your boss’s office in order to gain more authority. But it would be an idea to show your boss that you may be completely responsible for your actions. Don’t try to tell him (her) that you are good, just prove it. It may not help, of course, if your boss is too diffident and uncertain. But you’ll never know if you don’t try. Try to solve some problems completely by yourself. Accomplish a project, get brilliant results. Even if, in order to do so, you have to extend a little bit the bounders of your formal authority or cross some formal boundaries, it will be better than sitting and waiting for formal endorsement from above. The winner takes all.

I have seen a company in which one technical guy was, in fact, more powerful than the formal CEO. He could solve almost all the problems easier and faster than his boss. Nobody assigned him the role, but everybody in the company (including shareholders) knew that he was the one to go to in difficult situations. “BOSS” is just a word on a business card. Leadership is a part of personality. And a leader will never ask permission for authority – he (or she) will just go get it.

Svyatoslav Biryulin

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