Positional Power is a Thing

A few years back, I was in a discussion with a group of emerging managers. One expressed concern: their company was about to publish their first org chart, ever. How would people react?

Another participant had been through it before and offered comfort.   They observed that once a company has managers, there’s already an org chart:  it’s just not on paper yet.

A newer manager — and yes, this may mean a newer CEO —  may naively deny the power inherent in their position.

You may not understand the weight your words and actions assume because you’re the boss.  It may seem easier, nicer, or just more reasonable to approach people as though you’re their peer.

You’re not their peer.

I’ve written before about an early lesson learned.  I asked a junior staffer an innocent question, and noticed that he looked like he wanted to cry.  (I wish I could say that this was in my first management role, sigh.)

While you may wish to be friendly with people, you’ll find that it’s tough to actually be friends.  Even if you brought an existing friendship to the venture with you, it can be difficult.

When you’re the boss, your incentives are different.  And everyone knows it.

It has (thankfully) become less fashionable to believe that your organization can redistribute power by disrupting the traditional organization.   A company’s rewards and liabilities belong to its owners — and even with generous options, most of your team members probably aren’t truly your partners.

I’ve also written about the weaksauce way we sometimes use the word empowerment.   tl;dr, just don’t.

I’m not here to be power’s cheerleader.  I can’t balance the equation between good and devastatingly wrong uses of power.

It is a wrong view, though, to deny power as an element of humanity in your workplace.  Or to try to wish it away.

When you can acknowledge power, and how it operates, you’re better positioned to be a good leader, ally, and citizen.

This goes especially for your own power.

Photo: 76075 Wonder Woman Warrior Battle by Brickset, via Flickr under CC2.0 license.

This is one of a series of follow ups to What You Disregard, You Accept:  Red Flags for CEOs.  I’ve also posted this over at Medium.  The series:

Hookups and Startups: It’s Time for Some Game Theory

It was our first week of business school.  50 students, strangers at that point, had formed into small groups for a game theory exercise.

The professor introduced the concept:  when two parties know they’ll negotiate repeatedly, cooperation emerges.  With only one round of negotiation, individuals have more incentive to optimize for their own best result.

It was time to practice.  Our groups conferred, and appointed lead negotiators.

The game was a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma; if you expect to play only one round, you can win by cheating.  We were expected to play multiple rounds.

Our team lead faced off with a group led by The Banker.  As the faux-negotiation unfolded, The Banker opted to cheat in round one, winning it all, and leaving my team faux-broke.  The Banker laughed about having subverted the rules; our team lead was sheepish.

The game concluded, and the professor announced that it was time to choose study groups.  We were to walk around, talk to people, and choose our teams.  He closed with, “We’ll stay in this room until the market clears.”

Study groups would be our core social and work units during our first year; switching groups would not be allowed.  I eyed The Banker, and walked to the other side of the room; I didn’t want him in my group.  Over the next 2 years, people who became my friends told me of having made similar calculations.

Dude had thought he was playing a one-time game.

This spring, two new books crossed my feeds, Dorree Shafrir’s satiric novel, Startup (library) and American Hookup (library), by sociologist Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College.  I read them in quick succession, thinking about how romantic (for want of a better word) relationships affect our workplaces.

In Startup, a young woman is secretly hooking up with her boss, the CEO of a NYC tech startup.  After she ends the hookups, the consequences reverberate through the community.   At first, I mowed through it as chick-lit, a beach read.

Next up, Lisa Wade’s American Hookup, a readable account of her research into “hookup culture” on college campuses.  It shines light into some pretty dark places.

Wade points out that hookups aren’t news. and millenials aren’t having more casual sex than Boomers or Gen-Xers did.

What’s new is hookup culture, and its pervasive belief that un-caring casual sex is possible, normal, and easy.  Easier than relationships, which require communication, care, and feelings.

The rule of hookup culture is that you take ‘loving’ and ‘casual’ on a binary, when they are the opposite of that.

Lisa’s research subjects, students, kept journals; you hear their voices in American Hookup.  The students pointed me back to Startup’s fictional characters, and I decided to give it a closer second read.

Startup is funny when it rings true.  (36 is old.  Hashtag lol.)  Hookup culture in a fictional workplace?  Gave me pause.

It’s a small imaginary leap between non-fictional behaviors documented by Wade’s research subjects, and behaviors we can’t tolerate in our workplace communities.  Like harassment.

I wanted to talk with Lisa Wade.  She graciously agreed; quotes in this post are from our conversation.

My central questions for Lisa:  when you employ many recent grads, might you expect to see hookup culture at work?  And, how can managers act to create healthy working environments?

“Hookup culture can disrupt a healthy occupational culture,” Lisa told me.  “If I were a manager, I’d remind my employees that every co-worker relationship is valuable, precious, needs nurturing, and that my co-workers deserve respect and care.”

In hookup culture, students are expected to treat one another with the opposite of care:  when you’re done hooking up, you simply stop communicating; this ends it.  Care-less-ness is projected and performed as an aspirational state that’s both possible and normal.

For one thing, Lisa said, this is a lie.  “We have to acknowledge that ‘casual’ is not easy,” Lisa said.  All relationships require communication.

Lisa observed that a co-worker relationship may be more valuable to you than a hookup.

“Adding sex?”  Lisa said, “You’re accountable.  It will change the relationship forever. You are responsible.”

You may think a hookup with a colleague will be a one-time thing.

Actually, it’s not.  Like my classmate’s “win,” your hookup will be one of many interactions you’ll have with your co-worker.  And you’re part of a greater community.  It’s hard to reach shared goals if you stop communicating with a colleague — it’s also not fair to other co-workers.

Sex is great, but it’s really not that valuable.  Is it really worth the kind of trouble you’ll create?  We really over-value sex.  And yet it’s not that big of a deal to have sex with that person.

I also asked Lisa about relationships between people at different levels in an organization.

“Psychologists say that we’re not rational, we’re rationalizing,” Lisa pointed out.  It’s not rational, or smart, to hook up with a junior person. “It’s fraught with possibility that you now have to handle.  You’re courting drama.”

It’s risky, and naive, to ignore the power dynamic of a sexual relationship with a more junior colleague, casual or not.  Even if they’re not on your team.  Not a great idea.

This is one reason that some organizations have policies around relationships at work.

Policy is not a complete solution.  In reality, people will have relationships.  They can be part of healthy workplace cultures — when people involved take personal responsibility, and heed Lisa’s advice to be caring, and careful, in all of our relationships at work.

As the real, surreal, fake — and satirical — emerge on our feeds, we also must own the stories that we hear and share about what’s “normal.”

American Hookup points out that campus hookup culture advantages men.  It’s hard to see it working differently in the workplace.  (Um, Fox News.)

Here, I give Startup a big thumbs up:  three strong young women move through Shafrir’s world.  And yet the book doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test – perhaps intentionally.

If you speed through Startup, it may seem as though it ends on a girl power moment.  And like real life, the ending is actually a bit more ambiguous.  (And smarter.)

Is hookup culture part of startup culture?  I’m not entirely sure.

American Hookup and Startup emerged nearly simultaneously.  I’ll take this as a signal to pay attention.

When people act without concern for others and their feelings, it’s toxic.

If you’re a manager, be clear about how you want people to be treated at work.  And you can watch yourself, and treat others well; people will behave according to how you act.

Also remember, we’re all part of a bigger community.  And not just for today.

As Lisa pointed out, “Positive co-worker relationships are precious…if you tend to them well, they will serve you for the rest of your career.”

Work, careers, networks:  if this were all a game, there would be many iterations.

And, it’s not a game.

Thanks to Ida Benedetto, Gary Chou, Kirsten Lambertsen, Katherine Pan, Amy Vernon for reading earlier versions of this post and helping me improve it.  Ida’s observations on the etiquette of a sex party circuit as experience design are also relevant.   

Many thanks to Lisa Wade for investing the time to talk with me; I fear that I didn’t do justice to the very real distinctions her work outlines between hookups and hookup culture.  Do read her book, especially if you’re a parent, grandparent, uncle, or aunt to middle-schoolers.  We need to make a difference.

Also, when I first tried to buy a copy of Startup, it wasn’t on sale yet.  I requested and received an advance review copy.

And this supersized blog post started as a piece for my May 2017 newsletter on the topic of relationships at work.  It quickly got too long and complex for the (already published) newsletter.  Sign up here through the end of June, and you’ll receive access.

June 9, 2017 update:  this post, and the newsletter, went out before this info hit the tech press: not “normal;” not ok.