Weak Power Gets Tested

One of the most problematic setups in any organization is the installation of managers with weak power: Individuals who are given the responsibilities of management but who actually cannot wield them, because their power is weak and in name only.

This is not uncommon. Junior managers, or experienced managers with rockstar reports, or in some cases, non-profit boards with celebrity CEOs – all of them have the auspices of power, but when attempting to yield it, they find out that their power is toothless:

  • No, junior manager, we will not have HR declare you were right in this debate
  • No, experienced manager, that rockstar is too good to not approve their extraordinary time off request
  • No, non-profit board, your celebrity CEO cannot actually be fired

What’s even more challenging is that everyone knows when weak power exists; this can result in behavior that is some combination of insubordinate, flaunting, bullying, or simply indifferent. This, in turn, lures the weak power into trying to take disciplinary action. After balancing the posturing of weak power and the reality of wherever the real power resides, the situation is always resolved in a manner that’s messy and unsatisfying – typically with the weak power embarrassed, and overall faith in the institution undermined.

These cycles create unfair realities, like the fact that good junior managers get abused more than bad experienced managers - the latter being worse at the job but often more powerful.

There are only two solutions to these situations:

  • In the short term: Whoever actually has power needs to be involved enough to wield it decisively and undramatically:
    • For example, if you have an inexperienced manager reporting to you and need time for them to be able to take on their responsibilities more independently, tell them: “all hiring, firing, discipline, and promotions will be done with my explicit approval.”
    • Or, if you have a weak-power board, investors need to be clear that they will be involved in all final decisions.
  • In the medium term: Fix the power imbalance - somebody leaves, or somebody is given real power.

In any case, leaving weak-power in place for too long is begging for conflict, so don’t be surprised when that’s what you get.