At CLE Consulting we often work with leaders and individuals who find themselves embroiled in conflict. Our role is not just to help clients extricate themselves from these conflicts, but to learn from them.
One cause of conflict in workplaces and society, which isn’t discussed nearly enough, is the use of power and rank. Rank comes when we have greater power compared to someone else.
Rank brings certain privileges – such as greater social mobility, the freedom to make certain decisions, purchasing power and influence. The problem is that over time we start to take these privileges for granted. We begin to assume them as a birthright or a reflection of our personal talents and attributes. We feel entitled. We also forget what it’s like not to enjoy these privileges.
The problem is well illustrated in the recent furore over the receipt of a scholarship by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, from the Whitehouse Institute of Design.
Not surprisingly when this scholarship became public questions were asked about the basis on which Frances had been given the Chairman’s Scholarship, a grant awarded on only one occasion previously. While the Institute couldn’t elaborate on its selection processes or its protocols it insisted that the scholarship was based on merit.
So why such a high level of public interest? We instinctively understand that power brings with it influence and that it pays to be in favour with those in power. Politicians and public sector leaders make budget decisions and determine policy that has a major influence on the education sector and a range of other jurisdictions. That’s why there are strict rules about the declaration of donations to political parties, gifts to politicians – and even gifts to the children of politicians. It’s also why public sector organisations are subject to strict guidelines about the procurement of goods and services and the appointment of personnel. High levels of transparency and scrutiny ensure ethical practice. The lack of any public declaration by the Prime Minster or transparency about the scholarship application process, has done little to build public confidence.
The Prime Minister's statement that he doesn’t see the problem, is the problem. It suggests a lack of understanding of the aura that the power of high office creates. But the issue goes further than whether a leader or members of their family might benefit from their rank. Informed leaders need to understand the mesmerizing effect their rank has on others. They need to understand the hunger others can experience to be associated with their authority. The allure of power distorts the thinking and behaviour of those in its proximity. Employees agree to things they can’t deliver on for the sake of approval, associates bend the rules in an attempt to curry favour. Leaders and their associates who are unaware of power and rank dynamics run a high risk of finding themselves involved in conflict, controversy and scandal.
Leaders who don’t understand the practical and ethical implications associated with having power, not only put themselves and their companies at risk, they can expose vulnerable personnel. In this case the Prime Minister’s 22 year old daughter finds herself at the centre of an unwelcome public debate which detracts from her actual skills as a designer.
For Frances the question is now how to make sense of this experience. She can either use it as an opportunity to learn about the traps of power and the dangers of entitlement, or she too can deny that there is a problem. Of course the path of denial is tempting. Making sense of power can be challenging. I’ve written previously on the challenges of understanding and filtering others motivations in relationship with us when we hold power, influence or fame. Unless individuals are up for honest self-reflection, it is far easier to assume entitlement. However this only serves to perpetuates the problems of poorly used power and rank.
Having power and rank protects individuals and some sectors within the society from the challenges others face. This insulation, results in a skewed worldview that is dangerous for leader's decision making. It contributes to arrogance, as the legitimate struggles and concerns of others are dismissed. The treasurer Joe Hockey's statement that poorer Australians don't own cars or if they do they don't drive much, is a vivid illustration of the problem.
Many conflicts are fuelled by the unconscious use of power. It inflames people. Those who don’t enjoy privilege often manage with limited resources and must find a way to get by without taken-for-granted entitlements. When people witness benefits - such as the networks that power confers on others - resentment often results. It is not that people with lower rank have psychological problems or hang-ups - as is often suggested. The observation that power begets power, creates a sense of hopelessness and frustration for many. It violates values of fairness and equality.
In addition ordinary citzens must deal with intended or unintended insults that result when their intelligence, integrity, skill and capabilities are underestimated, insulted, overlooked or put down, by those who assume entitlement.
Revelations of the $60,000 scholarship to Frances Abbott followed the government’s budget announcements about de-regulation within the tertiary education sector. The cost of education is expected to increase for young Australians, with predictions that 25% fewer people will obtain a university education as a result. In the same budget, young people’s access to unemployment support was cut. Melletios Kyriakidis, the academic who alerted the media and politicians to the undisclosed scholarship stated “If you are going to put a budget out there and say you all have to do it tough, you have to lead by example.”
A final dimension of power is its potential to insulate those who have it – for a time at least – from the consequence of their actions. Those in positions of power have the capacity to directly and indirectly invoke punitive measures against those who challenge them. In recent weeks media attention has turned to the fate of those implicated in leaking this story. A twenty-year old student has been charged under the NSW Criminal Code and faces up to two years in prison if found guilty of computer hacking, while Kyriakidis who resigned after being subject to an internal investigation has brought a Fair Work complaint against the employer, with claims against the Prime Minister.
The nation watches with interest to see how the various parties are held accountable for their behaviours.
What privileges do you enjoy as a consequence of your role?
What assumptions have you made about the motivations and behaviours of those who enjoy less power?
Have you ever found yourself in a conflict linked to differences in power and privilege? How did you use your own power in this situation?