Nullification of Positional Power – Undermining authority

Byside

The merger was in full bloom. HR and local sales leadership from both companies met to resolve some issues and establish a working relationship. The highest ranking person in the group was a Director, who was African American. The discussion was very intense and the room responded as if the Director did not have a rank several positions above their own. At the end of the session the HR person turned to the Director and stated, “People at our company would have never reacted to you as they did. They would be more respectful of your position.”

Disregarding and nullifying positional power is more common than we think. It is a risky proposition, potentially detrimental to all parties involved. Additionally, it is difficult to prove in many instances. In most instances, the evidence is circumstantial, relying essentially on body language cues and hurt feelings. Unless you can quantify it with actions on the part of the perpetrator, the target appears insecure or overly sensitive.

New leaders have stated how they do not receive the prestige, recognition and respect they deserve from their peers and subordinates. Shockingly, people lower in the organization challenge them when they would not challenge others with the same level of authority.

The nullification of positional power is a universal problem, but women and minorities have expressed it many times in conversations. They feel as if their jobs are not perceived the same as others in their position. When nullification is evident, and in its worst cases, the team does not function, as well as it should, which ultimately could reflect negatively on the manager. Team members may also suffer the consequences of reduced effectiveness and its impact on financial rewards. Engagement levels may go down and productivity can be adversely affected if this practice is not addressed.

Sometimes, nullification of positional power shows itself in overly aggressive challenges to your authority, undermining your directives and refusing to seek your guidance or valuing your opinion. You may be tempted to retaliate or verbally castigate them in public. But remember, you are still the leader and must be above the fray, as it relates to executing the duties and responsibilities of your position. You cannot let your ego impair your judgment. Public admonishments or executions, may feel good, but can damage the defectiveness of the team.

It is interesting how some people walk around with a look on their face that says,” I don’t care what job you have. I am still better than you and will not accept you in your role in this organization.” They are defiant and have a difficult time suppressing the conditioning they received from their experiences, environment, biases, preferences and stereotypes.

It is a fact that most of the time nullification of positional power is not blatantly obvious. It is demonstrated through negative body language, micro-inequities and comments made in private. Micro-inequities are subtle actions, often unconscious offenses, injustices and inconveniences that make the recipient feel inadequate, insufficient, irrelevant, unimportant, insignificant, unnecessary and undervalued. They may be verbal or non verbal and reflect overt and covert actions. The persistent activity may cause people to second guess their competence and lose confidence in their abilities.

It may seem easier to address this behavior if the individual reports to the manager. But the behavior is not usually out in the open. The actions may be underground and committed in secret. Significant damage may be done to your effectiveness as a leader, before you discover this breach in your positional power.

Within many organizations it is acceptable to challenge ideas for they pride themselves on candor. That is their culture and it is understandable. Challenge is in their DNA, as a part of their mindset which is evident in their practices. Candor is woven into the fabric of their culture and no one takes it personally when challenged by someone lower in the organization. Status and titles are irrelevant when they are solving problems or developing ideas in brainstorming sessions. However, respect of all levels is expected.

Nullification of positional power is often used against the new manager. Some people deliberately set out to embarrass the new manager. They feel the person does not deserve the job for a variety of reasons and find it distasteful that they have to report to them. They may try everything in their power to cause them to fail by not cooperating and performing at a lower level beneath their capabilities.

Nullification or disregard for positional power has always been an enigma to me, particularly with people, who were actually afraid of leadership. However, they become emboldened and antagonistic when certain people were promoted into a job. Whereas, they were cautious with their words around most leaders, because they were concerned about their careers, these same individuals took a huge risk and acted out of character, because either they did not care or felt there would not be any repercussions.

A District Manager was promoted to his new assignment. He lacked the experience of some of the senior members on the team. One of the members thought they should have received the promotion. He did everything in his power to make the job difficult for the new manager. Years later, he confided in me that he did this out of spite. He did not respect the person in the position and worked within his power to make it difficult for his new boss. He told me, as if to soothe his conscience during a moment of remorse.

Occasionally, resistance to the new manager is in the subconscious realm. There is unconscious bias where people do not recognize what they are doing. When they are reprimanded for insubordination or written up for behavior unbecoming of a team member, they are surprised. Their argument is that they were just stating their ideas and the manager became offended and took it personally. However, it is often conscious, malicious, intentional and secretive.

A Regional Manager was conducting a session with one of his Districts. There was dissention in the group. He brought them in for an opportunity to clear the air and for the District Manager to essentially apologize for his actions, reset expectations for the manager and each member of the team. The meeting ended and several members left in the same car to return to their territories. Before they departed the sound of the Regional Manager’s voice was heard in the back seat. The driver who was a veteran representative went to the backseat and shut off the tape recorder. Apparently, he had secretly and illegally taped the entire meeting. The other representatives were surprised by his actions. His actions gave a signal to the other members that it was OK to act in a manner that nullified the positional power of the Regional Manager.

What does a manager do when they are aware of members in her organization trying to nullify their positional power? What does she do when she discovers the corrosive impact of subversive comments and actions?

If the action occurs in a meeting, they could table the discussion until later with words such as, “John we can take this conversation off line and I’m we can resolve the issue and bring it back to the group.” It may be documented as a performance issue and expectations and consequences stated if the behavior continues. Sometimes, companies may reassign promising performers and justify it by saying there was a personality clash with the new manager. This could send a dangerous message, set a dangerous precedent and inadvertently sanctioned inappropriate behavior.

One of my favorite personal stories involved an encounter I had when I attended a manager’s meeting. I was from the Home Office, which usually has a mystique associated with it. After all I was from the epicenter of power for the organization. I was at least two levels above most of the people in the room. A manager two level below me misunderstood my position on a certain point. He raised his hand and said, “I strongly disagree with what you just said.” The room became very quiet. I responded, “Allow me to restate my case, because if you heard me right, I’m sure you would not “strongly” disagree with my position.” I repeated my statement almost word for word and he acknowledged that he was in agreement.

Leaders should not get provoked into unprofessional behavior. The matter can be addressed by going to supportive leadership within your company. Your job as a leader is to be a leader for all, even though everyone may not want you in the job. Press on. Show your value and contribute substantial results, resources, reputation and financial performance. If they don’t, the matter must be discussed with their supervisor, with specific examples of the breach of protocol.

Your performance and your network of supporters will change the perception of some of these detractors. You will never be liked by everyone, but your leadership and excellent performance will add value to the company. Inappropriate behavior and disrespect should be handled appropriately and should not be tolerated.

Lastly, leaders can counteract nullification of personal power by elevating their social power or social capital. Your personality, work ethic and integrity are revealed to the organization through personal and professional interactions. People get to know you and realize what an asset you are to the company. They realize that you are committed to their personal growth and development. They may become advocates and speak out against those who are stabbing you in the back. Team members see that you belong in the job and are the right leader to help them achieve their personal and professional objectives.

Copyright © 20015 Orlando Ceaser

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