Off-Handed Power

In most organisations, power is seen to rest in the hands of managers. The more senior the manager, the more power. Yet in reality, power rests with each and every person in a team. Sometimes exercising that power can have significant effect – and sometimes it can be off-handed and unintentional.

Can you remember back to your school days? One thing I can recall is the power of groups. Kids from a very young age would form in-groups. These were groups ‘by association’ – young people who saw elements of themselves in others would attract one another and create a group. Children who didn’t fit the image of a group were sometimes cruelly dealt with.

So we had a group of sporting elites who bonded together, we had the ‘troublemakers’ bond together, we had young people who were more interested in music create a group, and so on.

The strength and independence of these groups were often sustained by disparaging those who were not in them. The ‘sporting elites’ would treat the ‘troublemakers’ with scant disregard. And the ‘reading’ group would not dare walk the path of the sporting elites. Discussions within groups would often centre on the inadequacies of people in other groups. It was often very cruel.

Perhaps my childhood memories have distorted reality, but this is one element of behaviour of the very young that, in my view has sustained itself into adulthood. And I see it (and participate in it all too often) a great deal.

Picture this. You are in a work group which is in a relaxed mood and there is an open discussion taking place. Someone from another department – Bob – is soon to be relocating to your department. You ask your team-mates, “So what’s the story with Bob? What’s he like?”.

In response to your question, your team mates look at one another and one person speaks up – “How do I say this without being too nasty… Bob is…..” Another person picks up the discussion and says, ‘I think you’ve just said it all’.

If this group is like most groups in these contexts, it will be cordial to Bob on his arrival, but it will not offer much more. Bob’s reputation precedes him, and the group would have to be convinced that he is NOT as bad as they think he is.

This is sophisticated as, unlike the schoolyard variety, the badmouthing is subtle yet pointed. Sometimes, words do not need to be used – facial expressions can convey what a person really thinks. It is off-handed as it is usually done in the recipient’s absence and may not even be intended to be malicious. The recipient does not know that they are being discussed in negative terms, yet they suffer the consequences. It is powerful in that one person’s comments can totally influence the group behaviour.

The UGRs (Unwritten Ground Rules) in these contexts are interesting to ponder. One UGR might be
‘Around here, it’s OK (maybe even fun) to bad-mouth other people’. Another might be ‘Around here, our groups are tight-knitted and entry to them is to be guarded against’. It would be beneficial to all to eliminate these UGRs and the consequences of them!

This is what we might consider to be ‘Sophisticated Off-Handed Power’.
One person badmouths another, and the recipient unknowingly suffers for what might be a lengthy period of time.