MINIMIZE THOSE SYMBOLS OF POWER

A LITTLE THING THAT MATTERS —- 

When one becomes a manager in many organizations, there are numerous symbols of power and authority that often accompany this newly acquired status.

An office, for example, is generally construed as quite a status  improvement over a cubicle in the bullpen.  Perhaps the office comes with a window to the outside and, of course, it’s likely to have a door you can close for privacy.  Occasionally, there is a reserved parking space  as well.

Managerial status also comes with a figurative “admission ticket” to a variety of closed-door, management meetings, off-limits to most of your non-managerial colleagues; you know, those gatherings where you supposedly get to become “in the know”.  I recall I once opened up my staff meeting to everybody in a fairly large organization, after hearing numerous complaints about them being exclusive and supposedly secretive.  For the first few meetings after my decision, the room was packed.  Soon, however, almost nobody except those required to attend, showed up.  When I asked my partner why they were now avoiding the opportunity they had clamored for, she simply said:  “it was the right to attend they were after, not the content that bores even us a lot of the time.”

Many managers also add their own symbolic touches over time designed — consciously or unconsciously — to signify their status and importance.  I refer to those embossed name and title plates on their desk, fine and expensive (not from the supply room) wood or leather “in” and “out” boxes and pen holders, signed pictures of themselves with luminaries on their walls, various certificates on display, even in some cases a new wardrobe to symbolize their elevation in status.

Don’t get me wrong, in moderation this is not a “big deal”, I’m not against offices, and yes, I engaged in some of this myself during my management career.  But if you have followed all of the articles in this “Little Things Matter” series, you know by now that an underlying theme in each of them is that the less distancewhether personal or symbolic — you put between yourself as a manager and those you manage, the better.

The trouble is that those you manage really notice these symbolic things.  What might seem like light-hearted affectations to you, are often given quite a different, unflattering connotation by others.  When that connotation takes the form of “he or she sure  thinks they are better than us”, you are in trouble.  So give those power symbols you have access to as a manager some careful thought.

I began to learn this lesson early on when I was assigned to manage an organization, housed in a large open space; one door in and out, no windows, and no real privacy to speak of.  Having had a private office in my prior assignment, it was quite a shock.  How was I to conduct private phone conversations?  How was I to shut out hearing everything that was going on around me? And certainly, how was I to have a private, performance-related review with subordinates, without broadcasting it on what in those days was our version of You-Tube?

In this environment, symbols of power and separation were useless.  We were in it together and in close proximity, yet with different roles.  It turned out those were perhaps the most educational and beneficial years of my early management career.  I discovered the power of being involved without getting in the way, of supervising close at hand without taking over,  of coaching without doing, of hearing things I wish I hadn’t and then ignoring them, and most importantly, of being flexible, adaptable, and creative in approaching managerial tasks.  For example, I discovered the value of having a performance discussion with a subordinate while walking outdoors; a  tension reduction habit that facilitated dialog, that I continued over the years.

Managerial roles are important within an organization but so are the hundreds of other roles that make an organization a success.  When everybody recognizes and celebrates the contributions of those around them — managers and non-managers alike — the barriers of separation quickly disappear.  As the best managers know and do, it is always wise not to rebuild them unnecessarily in symbolic ways.

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