Isn’t the King Powerless? (Part 2) – Day 26

Wednesday 07:18, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

One of the benefits of studying and learning about management – and, in my opinion, the one that has the greatest impact – is that it gives you a framework in which to make sense of behaviour, situations, actions and processes that we have both experienced and, occasionally, even instigated ourselves.

Theories, concepts, models and terminology, all of which were previously unknown but that through the process of learning are unveiled, provide a new language that enables us to see things through a new perspective.

For the last few weeks I’ve been reading about power and politics in organisations: two interlinked and truly fascinating concepts with political, economical, social and even philosophical connotations. Of the various theories, it’s really Lukes’ three dimensions of power, and the fourth dimension added by Hardy, that truly fascinate me. For context, I’ve described them below:

  • 1st dimension: power is visible and open (e.g., your line manager asks you to do something)
  • 2nd dimension: power is out-of-sight and whoever decides about ‘the game’ is ‘in the game’ (e.g., decisions made by a management group behind closed doors)
  • 3rd dimension: power is purposefully used to normalise and neutralise situations in order to avoid conflicts; things are taken for granted (e.g., your boss asks you to do something that is against your true will and uses language to sugar-coating it and ‘sells’ it to you as a benefit)
  • 4th dimension: power is invisible, relational and systematic and is not ‘owned’ by anybody; its affects are not by design and leaves certain individuals and groups of people disadvantaged while other benefit from it (e.g., a structural re-organisation of a large multi-national)

I’ve never really come across the fourth dimension before and although initially difficult to grasp it is the one that fascinates me the most. As an analogy Hardy uses the pieces of a chess board to describe how ‘less powerful’ pieces like the pawns can, through positioning and relation, bring down a much more ‘powerful’ piece, like the king. What I find interesting in this analogy is that although the objective of chess is to put your opponent in check mate (i.e. render the king powerless), I see the king as powerless pretty much all the time. The way the king moves, the way it is protected by the move castling. To me, I see a vulnerable piece, but one that is also the most important.

How does this relate to organisational structure? Are CEOs the kings of organisations? Are the pawns the employees? Or does Hardy’s fourth dimension create a world in which power and power structures remain largely invisible to most of us? And if this last question has any truth, if we cannot see and, by definition, control a systemic and relational dimension of power, what are the responsibilities of senior management during organisational operations and change? Is it to use power responsibly and create a just culture? To maximise shareholders’ profits and ensure operational fitness? Can the last two situations co-exist?

And to take the analogy even further, is there a ‘player’ – i.e., one that controls all the pieces of chess?

Pawn and king

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