The Idea Driven Blog

How Power Can Blind Managers To Front-Line Ideas

How Power Can Blind Managers To Front-Line Ideas

Why do so few organizations and leaders put much value on the ideas of their front-line people? Why do most leaders end up building institutions that generally do much better at suppressing these ideas than promoting them? There are many reasons. Here’s a major one.

Consider the constant reminders of their superiority that managers are bombarded with in the course of their daily work. They wear the suits, they have the private offices, they are the ones chosen for promotion, they are more highly educated and paid significantly more than their subordinates, and everyone defers to them. They are the ones in charge. With all of these signals continually reminding them that they are superior to their employees, it is easy for managers to come to believe that they actually are.

And if that wasn’t enough, as people rise in organizations, they gain power, and more than anything else, this power undermines their ability to listen to their subordinates.

As researchers Adam Galinsky, Deborah Gruenfeld, and Joe Magee noted in a recent paper:

The experience of holding power in a particular situation generates a constellation of characteristics and propensities that manifest themselves in affect, cognition, and behavior.

Some of these “characteristics and propensities” have a direct negative effect on a person’s receptiveness to ideas from subordinates. For example, as the authors reported:

  • Power reduces the complexity of a person’s thinking and his ability to consider alternatives.
  • Power leads to objectification, that is, to seeing others as a means to an end as opposed to seeing them as real people.
  • People with power listen less carefully, and have difficulty taking into account what others already know.
  • People with power do not regulate their behavior as much. They become egocentric and preoccupied with their own self-interest, which eclipses their awareness of the interests of others.
  • People with power are less accurate in their estimates of the interests and positions of others, and less open to the perspectives of others.

Idea-driven organizations recognize the debilitating effects of power on their managers’ openness to ideas, and take action to keep their managers humble and connected with their front-line people. There are many ways to do this:

  • Use 360-degree reviews (subordinates generally know best if their managers are truly open to improvement ideas)
  • Eliminate unnecessary perks (which distance managers from their people)
  • Require managers to spend time on the front-lines (so they appreciate the skills and knowledge that reside there)
  • Select and promote managers who are humble (why start off with problem managers?)
Alan Robinson
Alan Robinson
Alan received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the Johns Hopkins University and a B.A./M.A. in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in Great Britain. He is a professor at the Isenberg School of Management of the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and has advised more than 200 organizations in 25 countries on how to improve their idea performance.

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Andy Johnson   |   02 April 2014   |   Reply

Love the image putting humility as a leadership “prerequisite.” This connects very much with a more introverted, less power-focused or charismatic leadership style. The power dynamics you describe in the article are very much part of the extrovert ideal in the American workplace.