The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Where power is located

Many organizations have employees who have become essential to the organization or who are perceived as such. Whenever this is the case, power shifts away from the hierarchical top.

In some organizations, this is the default, and that is for good reasons.

Take an orchestra, a university, or a hospital. These organizations would not be able to fulfill their mission without professionals who are highly skilled and very autonomous. Their autonomy actually being the result of their level of professionalization.

An important aspect of their professionalization is that it is standardized. Such people join the organization based on an expected set of skills. They learned a skill or craft others find easy to interact with due to known processes and standardizations. Take the distribution of work within an orchestra for example. It is embedded in their performance; surgery is similarly orchestrated. These professionals know how to do their job and rarely need anyone to tell them how to do it. They expect others to trust their professionalism. Nevertheless, they are accustomed to having people judge their competence, but these people are mostly within their professional organizations and not within the organization they work for.

It’s the result of their job requiring such a high level of professionalism. Who, besides family members, would want to attend a concert with unskilled musicians? Similarly, parents expect teachers or professors to help their children master their future. It is an expectation that is met by the individual’s willingness to outperform themselves every time. It is a performance that creates the space to adapt to the situation based on the extensive framework within which this work takes place.

Such a setting requires a hierarchy that is very much aware of the autonomy these professionals need to exercise their role. It is an autonomy that automatically limits the power located in the hierarchy. At the same time, the received power comes with an obligation to handle their responsibility.

However, this isn’t always visible or understood from the outside. As such organizations often will rely on external support and financing, this is a risk.  That is, whenever they find themselves confronted with management ideas that are meant to serve organizations having a powerful leader at the top.

When applied, such management methods quickly become counterproductive.

Based on their professionalism people are accustomed to a highly standardized way of working and assimilate it with the trust they are given. Given their position and the way their work happens, a lack of trust will quickly impact their spirit and willingness to carry responsibility.

Applying management methods that are not adapted to such an organization results in a lot of tension between the poles of power. And it backfires.

Calling for a leader isn’t always the best solution. Especially if he assumes that the call makes him all-powerful.


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