The myth of control


Unlike common perception, many leaders at the highest level of management actually lack the basic guts to speak up for what is right against their bosses. Just that their designation happens to be CFO, COO, CHRO, VP, Senior V-P or President not withstanding. It’s a social trap that they have inextricably locked themselves into and lost the integrity to speak up when there is a need to do so.

All too often, leaders are led to believe that they control their organisation and its destiny. Yes, ironically this illusion persists, as they possess the authority to command and control their organisation. In reality, the leadership role that they play is governed by her organisational culture, for she is a slave of the very culture that she inherited, created, influenced or destroyed. So what is the point here?

Is it an important enough a question for us to discover whether a leader rules his or her institution? Is it a fact that it is the culture of dominance, aggression and autonomy that large institutions stand for as its culture that eventually leads to its divide. Or the failures of the leaders of our institutions and nation to sustain the promises made to grassroots is again a valid enough a reason for garbage and squalor in our everyday life?

Developing and wielding influence is what leaders do, can do and must do. And that is when political parties with a new message and a promise of action succeed. Or corporate visionary make promises to take their people to never-land. But those promises quickly falter as they are challenged by institutional bureaucracies, crass cronyism and sycophancy at the highest levels of C Suite.

Unlike common perception, many leaders at the highest level of management actually lack the basic guts to speak up for what is right against their bosses. Just that their designation happens to be CFO, COO, CHRO, VP, Senior V-P or President not withstanding. It’s a social trap that they have inextricably locked themselves into and lost the integrity to speak up when there is a need to do so.

This inconsistent behavioural reality has been the bane of leaders who have fallen prey to the inexplicable aspects of culture and climate, the foundational Diasporas of which they had set out to change. Systemically, often in unknown ways, leaders tend to get isolated from their structural teams – they don’t have close relationships with the people two or three layers down as organizations grow in size and complexity.

This gap soon becomes a source of distrust and organisational dysfunction that impinges on its ability to provide superior services. Or operational heads of departments who imagine themselves to be leaders act on the instructions of their bosses often to the detriment of their clients, community, people or the institution.

Absolute Myth
At the core is that, basic understanding power and influence are neither absolute, complete nor isolated and fragmented. They are relative and often unevenly distributed, many times irrationally, for want of better options but eventually align when need arises. What is that binding pin that brings such disparate elements together? Usable power at a corporate level is confined to domains of application that is driven by role, KPIs and eventual accountability for final deliverables. In a control context , power or influence is unusable in situations due to conventional understanding of what drives levels of performance. Sources of power, whether at the social level, institutional level, structural or emotive, although independent they do interact. Power or influence reflects practical reality for managers. Ignorance is no excuse in political competence and it is independent of awareness. Influence when wielded with a degree of charter is got by the private nature of discussions and motives that is entrusted upon them by their constituency. Social interaction and work ethic based relationships involves the exercise of power and that power is also used to understand relationships and social processes to get things done. Meaning, we know what and how to do what in a specific social – cultural – work ethic context. For example – an honest police officer in the midst of a corrupt set of colleagues. Difference between the exercise of power as a feature of organizational processes and power as the defining characteristics of processes is a key managerial competence. For effective use of power for managerial awareness is extremely essential.

Social Myth
Grass root level workers, frequently tell us about how they really don’t know their top leader. Soon, leaders perceive and feel disconnected from the front line. Unfortunately, this isolation is usually accompanied by a loss of trust and performance. No surprise, that the people at the top of the organization receive “filtered” information – when more than anyone else, leaders need the real story. This then encourages them to deploy their trusted lieutenants, friends, relatives, as it were, to provide authentic information. Not often enough, do these trusted folks bring competence, character or integrity along with them. Then there is also that trusted advisor who is hanging around to provide the necessary crutch. Go social, talk to people, engage with them. You will know everything that you need to know. Networking and interactions are important components of the leadership and management process in organizations of all sizes and types. But only if it’s is done not to problem solve, fix issues or pretend to be close to your people, but that which is driven by a sincere need to connect. It is interesting to watch how using social networking as an essential tool there are organizational bending over backwards to establish policies, programs and activities. This is including creation of internal networking sites, what’s app groups, blogs, face book, in house Twitter, message boards, discussions forums and every possible external world replicated internally all simply to engage actively their people. This in turn leads to wasteful time in their banal pontification of topics near completely irrelevant – all during work hours.

Control Myth
And above all of that would be a set of corporate communication whiz kids who in the name of editors will control what happens in these social interactions. How silly can we get! We establish a social forum for our people to interact without restrictions, conditions or controls and then use HR to monitor what happens in that forum! The good news is that such social power can be diagnosed and analyzed provided there is a willingness to not get lost in praising why and how social media is the most happening activity now and how we should engage to energize workforce. Rather the effort to understand what makes staff seek frivolous engagement at the social level in a business context is critical. Why would a staff member who is actively engaged in solving a problem is desperately seeking time off to respond to Face Book postings, or Twitter or participate in a whatsapp seminar. What drives them away from doing their on the job responsibilities as against this distraction that is beyond work. Moreover we can enhance, at least to some degree, your skill at wielding power and influence by asking people to connect a little more substantively than communicating through frivolous appreciation without the emotive attachment. These Political skills are being acquired, in the need to socially behave in a social media context —they are not just inborn. Today this connect at the social media level is what may be called as ‘Social Power’. And the lack of Governance to gain a comprehensive understanding and management of ‘Social Power’ is new area for exploration.

Power Myth
While social connect or cadre based people management, are good examples of grass root level connection, often the satraps of the local ghettos at the physical level of group managers, dominate not by building a climate of trust & collaboration but that of rules, games, awards, banners, points, strokes, and at another level fear of lack of appreciation, greed and disharmony. The negative experience of people deprived of fair play is one such case of divisive interested parties who compromised larger good for a retrograde & selfish hold over their constituency. This seeming contradiction of loss of control at the top, combined with a lethal hold by the bottom, is the sort of negative reality, an implosion that confronts large scale institutions today. These fundamental shifts at macro or micro level disintermediation including, Regional, caste politics, multiplicity of political parties, contradictory points of view to a standard problem, street justice, road rage, complex solution to simple problems, retailers hold over the customer, last mile connectivity, reality shows, bottom of the pyramid etc are all tight & sharp pointers of the schizophrenic ways in which people are led. Social Politics plays a very central role in every organization. Motives are the final way of differentiating between legitimate politics and their counter part. Social Power is a problem, as it is not easily defined in organizations. The potential and actual use of power raises more problems for managers like anxiety and confusion. Social Power draws attention to the issues of personal responsibility and also as to how much individual executives should contribute to the organizations they are employed in. Power is the capacity of individuals and groups to impress preferences and also exert will. And make a choice to divide time between what is work and what is NOT work. Organizational attempt to escape effective engagement practices by preaching how corporate management should be more sensitive to social media necessities are fooling themselves from substantive issues. It’s is this apathy to see the superficial as a solution that causes greater degree of employee disillusionment. We all know when people start. It is when what you have is either not good enough or no attempt is made to make it good enough.

Myth of So what?
Organizational culture is a macro phenomenon which refers to the patterns of norms, practices, beliefs, assumptions, values, behaviors and ways of the world, reflecting strategic goal congruence in people working together. This is best influenced by the leader at the top, who establishes the strategic conditions for organizational sustenance and longevity. The challenge therefore is to create a climate that culminates into a culture, that is the aggregate perception of how people feel about working in a role, responsibility or unit, in a particular way, and includes all aspects of the environment that directly affects their ability to perform better. It helps them to be pro-active and effective in their jobs. Climate has a tangible effect on motivation. A good working climate facilitates hands on working, collaboration at the bottom unit level, sharing of capabilities & ownership to performance outcomes. And also prevents nation’s “defenders” going after lawyers defending an accused! Changes are expected to influence the nature and experience of all aspects of business and organizational life. Business models are created in which organizations have less well-defined boundaries and are highly interdependent with other organizations in the supply chain or industry set. Industries and companies are concentrating on the competitive advantage and getting rid of unprofitable businesses. Corporations are relying on the power of inspirational leadership to get a unity of purpose among highly employable individuals. Organizations are placing premiums on growing innovation and on staff sharing knowledge in high performing and collaborative teams.

Reality Myth
If, you, as a leader, have woken up to a reality, that culture at the top & climate at the bottom controls your organization, that social is a myth that can be harnessed constructively provided you engage, you are perhaps already focusing on building a structure that talks to one another (circular & not flat), sharing risks (security & bonding), sharing identity (You & Me), and the moments of truth (freedom & autonomy), at all centers of influence. Who controls your organization? Now you know!

(The author is a partner & lead for HCM Platform Solutions with TCS Canada Inc., and a partner, country head and global steercom with KPMG LLP.)


  1. Very called directors and other seniors allow them selves to be abused by CMDs..particularly in PSUs..Fear of loosing jobs is the only reason. One or two told me so in private.

  2. I completely agree with Ganesh Sherman Corporate India is full of. Yes Men.
    In the govt & Public sector it is even more centralized

  3. Well analysed article. Most relevant in modern day environment when the so called leaders get glued to PC and do not know what is the field reality and lack basic knowledge of the facts.
    Further they are afraid to tell the truth fearing “boss will not like” .
    This will look rosy in the short term, but when issues burst out – matters will be beyond control.

  4. I have read and completely agreed. Majority of the senior team members never speak and just follow the direction of the bosses whether is right or wrong. This is excellent analysis.

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