The Power For Change


When asked about their biggest challenge, most managers cite the never-ending battle to get their employees to accept change. If this sounds all too familiar, read on.

53 years ago, psychologists Lester Coch and John French first demonstrated that including employees in the planning and decision-making process was the key strategy in “Overcoming Resistance to Change,” the name of their study at Harwood Manufacturing Corporation, an Appalachian maker of pajamas. In 1972, Alfred Morrow, the CEO of Hardwood at the time of the study, lamented in his book, The Failure of Success, that after 25 years, managers still had not learned this most important lesson about engaging employees in helping make the changes necessary to remain (or become) successful.

We modern day leaders find our organizations in the midst of an era where the only thing that seems not to change is the need for change itself. With so much experience, one might assume that we finally learned the Harwood lesson. Not so! The Center for Creative Leadership, and Discovery Learning collected and analyzed Decision Styles Surveys completed by 41,000 middle and upper level managers between 1985 and 1999. The participants in the study were asked to review 16 cases and then select a decision style from five style options, ranging from autocratic to consensual. A shockingly low 24% of the respondents chose the consensual style in those cases where it was deemed by experts to be the most effective.

Why? With over 50 years of experience, why are we still struggling to develop associates that embrace the chances needed for personal and organizational success? The answer: the very power and control that is essential to managerial effectiveness. To be successful, managers must be comfortable with having and using the power and control granted them by the organization. In fact, managers whose need to be liked by their associates overshadows their willingness to exercise power and control, may be well advised to find another line of work for the sake of their associates, their company, and themselves. In essence, management is all about having the “power to control.”

However, what significantly influences the positive or negative outcome of exercising the power to control is the manager’s “power motivation,” as described by David McClelland in his book, Power: The Inner Experience. Why is the power inherent in your position important to you? Is it because nobody knows as much as you; nobody can do it as well as you; it’s your foundation for future promotions; it’s simply a rush? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may have a higher than desired level of “personalized power” motivation. You use power to control others mainly for your own self-interest. Therefore, you have difficulty sharing your power with your associates, because it seems to you to go against your own self-interests, e.g., “they won’t respect me.” You make the decisions, you determine how things will be done; you tell; you seldom ask. Then you wonder by people are so resistant to your edicts for change.

Everyone, manager or not, enjoys having the power to control. It is the basis for our sense of mastery and confidence, and enhances our self-esteem. Motivated by a need for personalized power, managers who refuse to share power by failing to collaborate and involve associates in planning and decision making are literally blocking their associates’ access to these fundamental, psychological needs. It is the loss of one’s sense of mastery and confidence that people resist, not change. Exclusion from the planning and decision making also sends a message of disrespect, creating resentment toward managers’ actions, good and bad.

On the other hand, we all have known managers whose associates always seem enthusiastic and ready to take on the next challenge. What is the difference? It is very likely that these “inspiring” managers exercise power and control from a “socialized power” motivation. Does seeing your personal influence help the organization succeed, watching your associates grow in their ability to contribute, and making the world a better place for your customers constitute a source of personal pride and satisfaction? If you can truthfully answer yes, you tend exercise power and control for the good of others, not just yourself. Your power motivation enables you to comfortably share power and control by involving your associates in the planning and decision making that always should accompany complex change. Associate involvement always trumps management dictates when implementing change. The personal payoff is this: those managers whose socialized power motive dominates, rise to higher organizational levels at younger ages than managers having a personalized power motive.

The fact is our behavior is a mix of both power motives, as well as a need to be liked. If our dominate motive is to be liked, we will likely fail as managers. If it is personalized power, we will enjoy some success (unless our associates are Gen X’ers), but we will plateau well short of our dreams and wonder why. But if we can wire (or rewire) our value system to be in sync with a socialized power motive, we will become change agents and our associates will call us “leaders.”

Involving people in planning and decision making when change is required worked in an Appalachian pajama factory over 50 years ago. It will work for you, if you attitude about power and control are in the right proportions. Are they?

Copyright 2002 International Leadership Associates