The Theatre of Power

How to Play the Power Game in Organisations?

A central idea in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – the bible of behavioural design – is that our automatic brain takes instant decisions based on shortcuts. Afterwards, our conscious brain finds a reason for the decision we took. Actually, this is all you need to know to survive within corporations. You get why organisations are so bad at recruiting the right people (sympathy is our shortcut for competence). Or why upper class girls with hugely inflated egos make a swift and successful career (confidence is our shortcut for talent). Or why finance guys with a pathetic suit, glasses and lots of Excel knowhow get so much power (an understanding of numbers is our shortcut for intelligence and control). Or why advertising folks aren’t taken seriously (people who call themselves creative are assumed not to have a clue when it comes to ‘important matters’). The applications are endless.

The philosopher Hegel once argued that the slave actually makes the master. The slaves´ collective acceptance of their role allows the master to play the master role. This is very true for organisations: power is just a theatre play. The actors – consciously or unconsciously – get their status through behavioural signs and tricks. My first boss was the eldest of a family of twenty kids. She castrated you on the spot as soon as she smelt just a hint of weakness. Half the company was terrified of her. But if you simply didn’t go along with her power play, you couldn’t go wrong, really.

Under his or her clothes, every emperor is butt-naked. And to cover that nakedness they adorn themselves with mannerisms, routines, signs and the jargon of power. Once you have sussed that, life within a corporation becomes far more pleasant. If you’re young and you’re reading this column, remember just one rule of thumb: the bigger the power play, the bigger the uncertainty hiding behind.

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