Powerlessness, Employee Engagement, and Organizational Change

How employees with little power get even.
We often associate power with corruption—dictators run kleptocracies, business leaders make selfish decisions that do little for shareholders, government and political leaders squander taxpayers dollars on pet projects, and some non-profit and charitable organizations are run more like personal fiefdoms than contribute to the social good. Although we easily recognize the corrosive effects of power, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 2010 article in Harvard Business Review maintained that powerlessness plays an equally toxic role in many organizations. Leaders and employees with limited power jealously guard whatever they have by not sharing information with others and insisting those who need their help follow all rules, complete all forms correctly (and in ink!), and abide to their time lines. Those who fail to pay the appropriate tributes will experience expertly honed examples of passive-aggressiveness, as their calls will be ignored, forms lost, and time lines extended.

Unfortunately we experience the corrosive nature of powerlessness in everyday life, be it the call center customer service representative (the eight questions you need to answer to talk to a real person are poignant examples of powerlessness), airline gate agent, purchasing or A/P employee, law or regulatory enforcement officer, or technical support. All have limited power, know the rules better than anyone, are immune to logic and rationale, and will make your life hell whenever possible. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to experience powerlessness in action while traveling to Canada to renew my work permit. As I entered the country the Canadian Immigration agent said there was a new permitting process and the paperwork I brought with me no longer met the requirements. Rather than letting me through and telling me to bring the proper paperwork to my visit next month, I was declared persona non grata and personally escorted back through Customs and Immigration, airport security, and to the gate to catch the next flight back to the United States. All this happened despite the fact that I had made over 200 visits to the country and possessed valid work permits for the past 15 years. Throughout this eight hour ordeal the agent insisted she was trying to help me—although with what was never clear.

Powerlessness may play an important role in employee engagement and resistance to change. Moss Kanter rightly points out that powerlessness has a contagion effect—if a senior leader lacks power than those in middle management will have even less power, front line supervisors will have less than that, and employees will have very little power. If rank and file employees are not empowered then it should be no wonder why 70 percent report being disengaged or actively disengaged. Powerlessness may also be why most organizational change initiatives fail, as people will do all they can to thwart change programs that threaten what little power they possess. Getting people involved and empowering them to think for themselves and do what is right for customers and their organizations would go a long way towards fixing employee engagement and driving change. But ineffective senior leaders would view this as threatening, and we all know what happens when one’s power is at risk.