Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible (Bueno de Mesquita & Smith, 2011, p. 11).
In The Dictator’s Handbook, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith (2011) explain that leaders’ actions (both good and bad) can be understood as efforts to save their own skin.
“Certainly anyone reluctant to be a brute will not last long if everyone knows he is unprepared to engage in the vicious behavior that may be essential to political survival” (p. 129). They refer to leaders’ “arbitrary and tough” use of power.
Translation – managers will not hesitate to throw you under a bus if it they think its in their best interests. If they think they can bully you, they will. If they think that harassment, aggression, intimidation, and hostile behavior will get you to back down, then those will be the preferred methods of control.
I find it interesting how some leaders choose to spend their time in empire protection instead of serving those in it. Relatedly, Tony Schwartz states that feedback is often given in the spirit of “getting our value back,” or on showing people who’s boss. When this is the goal we are likely to be “reactive, insensitive, and even hurtful.”
“If it’s about us, it’s not truly about them. Any time we provide feedback with the goal of getting someone to better meet our needs, rather than being responsive to theirs, it’s unlikely to prompt the desired outcome.” Calling you on the carpet, micromanaging, and verbal castigation are of course not about you, but about affirming the importance of someone else.
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argue that dictators preserve their position by gaining the support of those considered “essentials;” individuals whose network centrality gives them leverage in potentially ousting their boss. Influence is compounded if these persons are considered a player in the “old X network,” ones potentially devoid of morals – who stoop to gossiping, snooping, and snitching on their peers. Extra eyes and ears (particularly of someone well connected), can be valuable to a leader who wishes to preserve his or her power. It’s to these essentials with whom the leader makes a deal with the devil: “I’ll give you anything you want.”
The leader realizes of course that constituents’ loyalty can be purchased by the right stroking, perks, and rewards. Modern day dictators perform mental calculus to ascertain who these essentials are. These are the persons to whom apologies are made, deference is paid, and promises are kept. Their importance and willingness to scream bloody murder motivates leaders to curry their favor.
From the rest of the staff, the “interchangeables,” nothing less than abject loyalty is expected. These followers are kept off balance by power mongers who make it clear they can be replaced. The acid test of loyalty is how staff behave when they’re abused. If their first reaction is non-action, leaders are then assured of their loyalty.
Some dictators expand the boundaries of inclusion by extending it to support staff, toadies, and flunkies, who gain admittance to the inner circle by (1) providing insider information; (2) unquestioningly following orders, and (3) taking the dictator’s side on any issue.
In addition to members of his magisterial court, dictators enlist the aid of support staff in closely monitoring their personnel. Part of assistants’ unwritten job description is to transcribe employee activity to the smallest detail – including number of office visits, tone and content of conversation, employee demeanor, and any other information that may be pertinent to their supervisor’s fact finding.
Loyalists trade their conscience when the manager deems survival as priority.
Dictators assume a strangle hold on their constituencies (and a lockdown on expression) when they remain unchallenged. To provide a more democratic means of management, organizations can choose the following:
- Provide regularly held forums for input. Is there a system to ensure that followers provide their opinions on whom they deem worthy of managerial positions (aka 360 degree feedback)? Are they included in succession planning?
- Encourage “voice.” When communication is solely top down, followers feel frustrated and undervalued. Encourage open door policies where leaders are forced to listen and incorporate contrary views. Schwartz explains that problems ensure when managers assume they’re right instead of approaching others “in a spirit of humble exploration rather than declaration, dialogue rather than monologue, curiosity rather than certainty.” Ultimately, he argues we should ask ourselves how we would feel if we received identical feedback.
- In the German model of codetermination, assemble a governing board comprised of different organizational levels and constituencies.
Remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Only when leaders operate in a vacuum can they behave in a corrupt fashion.