“It is a strange desire, to seek power, and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self.” ~ Francis Bacon
Conflict is the bane of organizational productivity and engagement. When done with respect and curiosity, conflict can be healthy often leading creative resolutions. Too often, however, disputes are unresolved and escalate into aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior. This article looks at two perspectives of power and conflict, one we call finite and the other infinite. What they are and the results they produce are explored.
The Finite Perspective of Power
Our competitive spirit has made American great. Our free enterprise system, in which anyone can choose to offer their goods or services in the competitive marketplace, has been a hallmark of democracy in the United States. Today’s globally competitive marketplace is a force that improves the quality of goods and services as it keeps prices lower. It is also a spur to productivity, as being able to produce more for less is a fundamental survival characteristic.
The survival-orientation of competitiveness is its most potent characteristic. It is clear in its focus on winning and not losing. If a situation is one of eat or be eaten, live or die, win or go out of business, being a strong competitor is the way to go. Darwin’s Origin of Species documents well this approach to survival. His phrase “survival of the fittest” describes pointedly the survival orientation of the win/lose perspective of power.
Clearly, the organizations most fit to compete will be the ones to survive in a highly competitive environment. Competition, for all its value as the friend of the consumer, improving quality and protecting price levels and spurring productivity, is, nonetheless, a power perspective with decidedly diminishing returns. When competition becomes unfriendly and predatory — unnecessary because survival is not at stake—win/lose ultimately becomes lose/lose, a very limiting, limited, and finite proposition.
From Win/Lose to Lose/Lose
Too easily, we respond as if life and death were at stake in situations that have only a superficial win/lose aspect to them. Unfortunately, when we treat situations without survival aspects, as if they do, we will create — sooner or later — lose/lose results. Intra-organizational competition is a good example. Organizations are systems in which each component—department, person, or piece of equipment—is ostensibly necessary to the success of the organization. Any department or person, therefore, that wins to the detriment of another department or person within the organization creates a situation inimical to the entire organization and subsequent all its components — including the “winning” component—win/lose becomes lose/lose.
Power Struggles, Conformity, and Productivity Most organizations waste much time, energy, creativity, and productivity. Or they never develop because of power struggles. Turf battles, empire-building, dueling departments, back-stabbing, self-promoting decisions, ego trips, favoritism, passive aggression, duplication of effort, poor judgement, poor communication, personality conflicts, contentious employees, gossip, complaining, blaming, grievances, and lawsuits are just some of the things that happen in organizations that waste time and energy. They are activities that do not allow organizations to reach their fullest potential. All are forms of power struggles or attempts at avoiding them. All come from the finite, win/lose perspective of power. Some organizations seem peaceful on the surface. Many of these are the organizations that are riddled with undue conformity, groupthink, sycophancy, buck-passing, responsibility avoidance, problem concealment, and apathy. In these organizations, the power struggles are still there, but in passive aggressive form. These organizations lose a lot of their productive energy because many of the thoughts, ideas, opinions, and information needed for effective organization management never surface. We see offering ideas, opinions, or information that stray too far from the patterns of thinking established as acceptable to those at the top as too risky, too dangerous. So is being perceived as too different from those authority figures in style of dress, speaking, thinking, and other behaviors.
Power Struggles and DifferencesThe hallmark of the finite perspective of power is that differences are used to determine who wins and who loses. In fact, we have been deeply socialized regarding which side of a sizable set of differences wins and which loses. Generically, we understand that “more” wins against “less,” “high” wins against “low,” “fast” wins against “slow,” “big” wins against “little,” “first” wins against anything else. We understand these distinctions with no context of what is more or faster. Rationally, we even know that fast and more aren’t always better than slow and less. Yet, the world of organizations still cycles through periods of mergers to build bigger and bigger companies for greater and greater “economies of scale” and “competitive advantage” that too rarely occur. Other differences are emotionally problematic—male wins over female, white wins over black, straight wins over gay. These are differences carry substantial emotional charges. This occurs when arbitrary categories of people are oppressed for the aggrandizement of another group. “Diversity programs” aimed at ameliorating race and gender issues don’t begin to get at the win/lose issues driven by the finite paradigm of power. The diversity issue most disruptive to organizational effectiveness is not fast/slow, more/less, race or gender. Rank is. Those who rank higher in organizations consistently win over those who rank lower. Those of higher ranks can reward and penalize those of lower ranks, making the difference one with dangerous levels of risk. The higher one rises within such organizations, the less reliable will be the information received, while sycophantic agreement increases. These phenomena are functions of the perception of danger. New managers recently promoted over their former peers often tell me how mystified and hurt they are that their friends, now subordinates, change the conversation or disassemble when they arrive on the scene. These subordinates, as friends, were open and direct. Those who wish to move up within their organizations are very clear that it pays to dress like, talk like, behave like, and think like those who are already above them. We see doing otherwise as committing corporate suicide—notice the live or die terminology. When we perceive differences as dangerous, we lose dramatic amounts of organizational productivity to both power struggles and conformity. This doesn’t have to be true, but it takes a lot of infinite play to make it otherwise. In summary, when organizational cultures operate from the win/lose perspective that believes that power is finite and scarce, winning and losing become a productivity-consuming reality. In such environments, managers and employees operate to compete or conform, to increase or protect their power, even at the cost of organizational productivity. The following chart summarizes by description, consequences, and organizational impact the finite perspective of power:
The Finite Perspective of Power
Power is perceived as scarce.
To win equals success; to lose equals failure.
The purpose is to determine who will be winner and who will be loser at the end of the game.
Differences are used to determine who wins and who loses.
Differences used to determine who is winner and who is loser include rank, role, race, gender, ethnicity, preferences, appearance, background, behaviors, beliefs, and opinions.
All play must be within the rules to maintain the validity of the game, i.e., the merit of winning and the disgrace of losing. Those caught playing outside the rules are censured, disqualified or otherwise punished.
The idea “power is scarce” is a self-fulfilling prophecy because partnerships and influence are seen as temporary and limited.
The finite perspective is used whenever survival is perceived as a life and death issue. It is the paradigm of choice only when survival actually is a life and death issue.
Power is a zero-sum, win/lose game
Winning and NOT losing are high priorities.
A serious game which easily evokes a sense of threat to self-esteem as if life and death were at stake.
Differences lead to tension and power struggles, Diversity = adversity.
Differences and changer threatening. Conformity with dependency on and loyalty to those perceived as winner is seem as the safe route to success.
Little creativity is possible because the the need to stay safely inside the rules and the focus is so much on winning and not losing.
Players repeatedly choose to play finitely because it seems there are no other options.
Playing finitely when life and death are not at stake, only ego issues are. Win/lose become a lose/lose proposition in which everyone will lose in the long run, if not the short.
The finite paradigm is the power paradigm of survival—eat or be eaten. It is appropriate to some organizational situations but not to most. Organizational managers must discriminate between when win/lose is appropriate and when it is not. When we have gained “… the wisdom to know the difference,” we will need an alternative for those times when the finite perspective is not appropriate. We offer the infinite perspective of power as the alternative to the eventual lose/lose result of playing finitely.
The Infinite Perspective of Power
An infinite perspective of power understands power to be abundant and offers no necessity for struggle. Winning and losing are not at issue when playing infinitely. In fact, the purpose of infinite play is to sustain play rather than determine who wins and who loses. Only at the end of a game is it known who the winners are and who the losers are. As long as play continues, there are no winners or losers in the finite sense. To assure that play continues, that the life of the organization continues, it behooves players to cooperate with and be supportive of each other. Infinite play works toward a positive experience for all players. Damaged or dissatisfied players threaten an end to the game or, at least, decrease its productivity. The term win/win applies only in the sense that everyone must experience satisfaction if the game is to continue.
Misunderstanding about Infinite Play
Allowing another to repeatedly take advantage of oneself is not playing infinitely. You are playing win/lose with yourself as the loser. To play infinitely you must insist on winning and insist that others win as well.
Leaders must be on the lookout for employees stepping into the same pitfall. I have listened to many stressed-out, resentful employees complain bitterly about the workloads that their managers heap upon them. As I inquire further, I discover that these employees have never informed their bosses of their being overloaded. Eventually, the stress and resentment either decreases the work quality of these employees or they leave believing that management has forced them to sacrifice themselves and their sense of well-being for the good of the organization. To develop the productivity of the Infinite Organization, organizational managers must take care to assure that management, employees, and organizational goals all win with no need to sacrifice.
Let’s also be clear that winning in the infinite perspective is more about achieving an experience of substantial satisfaction and workability than about achieving some specific picture in our minds of what we want.
A third misunderstanding about playing infinitely has to do with the organizational managers who promote compromise as a way of playing infinitely. Unfortunately, compromise leaves each party with half of the satisfaction and workability sought. Half is not substantial enough to achieve the productivity of the Infinite Organization. Full satisfaction for everyone over the long run is the hallmark of infinite play.
A final misunderstanding about infinite play in organizations is the idea that disciplining (including firing) an employee is not possible, since that would cause a loss to the employee. This issue relates to the already discussed issue that holds that management must not take a loss if play is to be infinite. An employee who is not performing at the level needed by the organization is creating a loss for the organization. The employee must improve or leave to find some place where they are better suited. Employees will experience themselves as losing at the time of their dismissal for poor performance, and often they find their way to jobs for which they are better suited—an infinite play that doesn’t seem so at the time. Accountability is crucial to infinite play.
Differences, the Only Source of Learning
Differences are the only source of learning we have. This is worthy of repeating: Differences are the only source of learning we have. Neither you nor I can learn much at all from a room full of people who think the same or have the same opinions and background as we do. Only if someone arrives who is different will we have any opportunity for learning. Likewise, in corporate meetings where conformity is rampant, little learning is possible. In the same vein, learning from those with whom we are engaged in power struggles is not on the agenda. There might be some small learning about how to survive a power struggle or how to do something the way “the winners” do. Regardless, neither the system nor “the winners” will learn anything constructive. All will stay the same. Learning from differences requires an environment perceived as welcoming and valuing differences rather than using them to determine who wins and who loses.
Becoming a learning organization does not have to be the management flavor of the month. It requires, however, that an organization come up with ways to assure that its members use differences for learning rather than contention on conformity. Becoming a learning organization requires a change in organizational culture that incorporates the infinite perspective of power. To play infinitely with differences, when you disagree with me about something I know is right, I must focus on learning—learning about your point of view and learning about you. I don’t need to agree; I just need to learn. Learning from differences is incredibly difficult, particularly when we are under stress. In stressful situations, we cannot be depended on to learn rather than fight or conform. To learn from differences, we require support systems of people who will remind us of our ability to play infinitely even when we protest.
If learning from differences can occur in an organization, synergy becomes possible. Synergy is another of those “flavor of the month” buzz words that rarely bear much fruit. Synergy is the force that occurs when two or more agents act in concert so that the product of their combined energy is greater than the sum of their individual energies acting independently. Harold Geneen’s book, The Synergy Myth documents well the position that says that synergy and other management flavors of the month have produced little new productivity. This need not be so for organizations that develop cultures that insist on learning from differences. For those organizations, there are several principles of synergy that will be helpful to us. They are:
The Principles of Synergy in Organizations
- Within any organization of two or more people, synergy is possible,
- The amount of synergy possible within an organization is directly proportional to the amount of diversity within that organization.
- The amount of synergy generated within an organization is directly proportional to how much the organization in action values and learns from its diversity.
- All members of organizations will willingly contribute to the synergy if they perceive from their individual perspectives that…
a. Their points of view will, when shared, be fully and authentically considered.
b. Their self-interests will not be harmed, but maintained, if not enhanced.
That synergy is possible is clear in the energy that small, entrepreneurial start-ups generate and use to get their fledgling organizations to grow. A small group of people feed off each other’s ideas and backgrounds to invent something that none could have invented alone. What I find fascinating is that synergy occurs in most organizations—when a genuine crisis hits. Virtually every organization has legends about how everyone pulled together, invented new solutions, and met the deadline when fire happened, when the accreditation people were coming, when the proposal had to get out. We will create synergy when our mutual survival seems at stake—such irony. We need to create synergy before our mutual survival becomes at stake.
The Infinite Perspective of Power
Power is perceived as abundant.
The purpose is to maintain the play of the game.
The continuance of the game depends on the well-being of the players and their relationships.
Differences are used for their inherent value. They are the only source of learning that exists.
Differences sucg as race, gender, rank, and beliefs are sources of curiosity and learning.
Playing with and outside the rules is allowed to assure the flexibility needed to maintain the well-being and the players and the game.
The idea”power is abundant” is a sefl-fulfilling prophecy as relationships are safe, diverse, learningful, and unlimited.
The paradigm of choice when growth and learning ar primary goals.
Power is a positive-sum game of collaboration. Determining winners and losers has no value.
It is a game easy to play well and without anxiety as no one’s survival or self-esteem is at stake.
It is a game the evokes cooperation and openness while never allowing self or any player to be abused.
Differences lead to curiosity, enthusiasm, creativity, and learning.
Being safe is safe and welcome. Conformity is a matter of personal choice
Play with and outside support extensive creativity and self-expression.
A rewarding, highly influential way of life remember to choose it.
Everyone wins, no one loses.
Yes, our competitive spirit has made American great. Let us continue that competitiveness from the infinite perspective, where losing a match, does not mean we are losers. Instead, we compete to learn and enjoy ourselves and each other. This way being competitive is a win for the players and the organization they are playing for./p>
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