View from the top (Altitude sickness)

For as long as organisations have been exceeding industry benchmarks without traditional hierarchy structures, others have lamented ‘siloed’ organisations, a blame culture and performance failures, while structuring, restructuring and re-restructuring clumsy reporting lines and vertical  hierarchies.

As I have observed the ill-effects of power hierarchies in organisations for decades now, I have regularly pondered this anomaly. As Albert Koopman’s Cashbuild and Ralph Stayer’s Johnsonville Sausage (partnership approaches) were formative in my view of enterprise early in my career, I have been intrigued by the formation of giant industries to research and explain disengagement and ‘presenteeism’.

Oxygen deprivation, I decided, was the explanation for why those ‘up there’ create a structure where typically:

  • Enthusiasm is snuffed out by ‘accidental diminishers’
  • Productivity is suppressed by micro management and incessant (even hourly) checks and reporting
  • Health is seriously (even fatally) compromised by stand over tactics and/or cynical manipulation by those in power
  • Sanity is tested daily
  • Those without ‘formal power’ know it’s most likely the same everywhere so why search for something that makes sense?

Then I came across this research, and it may explain the anomaly. Apparently, even a little bit of power allocated to one in a group leads to obnoxious, entitled and territorial behaviour, and grabbing what they can…….(adults not 3-year olds).

Ring any bells? Researcher Dr Dacher Keltner
has found that people get power by being nice, but when they have power, something happens.

Common power perils (across a range of situations at work or elsewhere) include:

  • Obnoxious grandstanding
  • Flouting common courtesies (e.g. eating with mouth open, spilling everywhere)
  • Taking liberties with others
  • Acting ‘above the law’/in an entitled manner (e.g. charging through a pedestrian crossing when someone is trying to cross)
  • Selective listening, seeing, sensing

Power does corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, it would seem. Whether it be a small dose of power given to a bureaucrat, a leading-hand on a bottling plant, a middle manager or a CEO……………all appear to be susceptible to this altitude sickness.

Dr Keltner points out that political despots move quickly to destroy systems of commentary and scrutiny. (But beware: simply sentencing managers to 360-degree feedback is not the answer.)

The question then becomes: what is the antidote to this condition?

History and industry are strewn with well-known leaders who use their power for good e.g. Abraham Lincoln of whom Thurlow Weed wrote: “He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him.”

The research shows that 40% of the human brain is wired for helpfulness and that those who act collaboratively quickly establish this as a group norm. Kindness and working together are human nature, not territorialism nor in-fighting. This is born out more recently by an increasing number of organisations that function on collaboration, teamwork and partnership such as Spotify. Also check out Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk

It appears the power hierarchy is not necessary, functional nor inexorably linked with success. (Quite the opposite it seems.)

Also significant is that those with power have higher cognitive intelligence while those without have superior social and emotional intelligence. Interesting that the majority of people in an organisation are essentially bonded with others in a similar position – a vast pool of discretionary effort and under-utilised cognitive capacity, apparently related to hyper-vigilance.

Powerlessness has been shown to trigger hyper-vigilance which in turn is linked with everything from a suppressed immune system to shortening of telomeres directly related to aging.

I once advised a CEO to get his people in regularly to give him negative feedback. I think he thought I was kidding. Trusting people that much is a start and you have to start somewhere to get people alongside you in defiance of this outmoded approach that places a manager ‘up there’. Without people ‘plugged in’ alongside you, any power given by title is an illusion.

(For a written summary of ‘The Power Paradox’ YouTube, email me at


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
This entry was posted in Organisation success. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to View from the top (Altitude sickness)

  1. David Gandar says:

    Good insights Cherri, it seems we have an inbuilt human tendency to misuse power but most often manifested when the organisation culture evolves to support that – accidentally or cynically or just through ignorance perhaps. Is that the right message from your post? It’s relevant that in our transformation workshop, in running a group session on the behaviours all wanted in a team contract, the qualities such as integrity, trust, collaboration, honesty. tolerance, openness are unanimously sought. That leads to the fair question – if we can so readily agree on these as the behaviours we will adopt for each other, are those embodied in your work culture? And if not, why not?

    • Thanks for your comments David! In all other aspects of life, we seem to do fine with social agreements, not pushing in a queue, driving on the same side of the road when heading in the same direction. Then we go to work, and we’re treated like children – ‘charges’ to those in charge, who then complain that they have so much to do and that people don’t show initiative! As Bucky Fuller said: You bring about change by creating a new system that makes the old one obsolete. Some are working the new system and getting the benefits – soon others will catch up. Cherri

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s