Blog Post

In the digital age, a horizontal mindset eats strategy (and agility) for breakfast

One issue that usually stirs lively discussion in my workshops on leadership communication is the role of position power, specifically the psychological distance power differences are prone to create. Indeed, ingenious research has identified a “power-induced impediment to experiencing empathy” that is marked by a “tendency to view other people only in terms of qualities that serve one’s personal goals and interests, while failing to consider those features of others that define their humanity.”

From this perspective, it is small wonder that a domineering, power-based leadership style “comes with a hefty price tag; less satisfied employees, reduced creativity, and people rushing for the next exit”, all of which drive down organisational performances. What is more, the perils of (position) power are not limited to a lack of empathy or emotional acumen. Nor is the problem confined to bossy bosses. Indeed, a much thornier issue is that power differences per se are incompatible with innate, preconceived ideas of how employees want to be led. For the plain truth is this: people simply mind being told what to do. Not just in an insensitive, high-handed way, but in principle. Take micromanagement, for example. Cross-cultural research such as the GLOBE project confirms that it is a universally disliked leadership trait. People everywhere despise being micromanaged, even if their boss is basically a nice person. Why though? Why can’t we stand being commanded and controlled in this way? Think about it. On the surface, isn’t it great to have a supervisor who tells you exactly how things ought to be done and who regularly checks for mistakes? No real effort required to come up with a solution on your own, no danger of producing a final outcome the powers that be won’t approve of. And, hey, you don’t earn any less even though your boss is doing part of your work for you. What’s not to like about that? Of course, I’m being sarcastic here. Still, the conundrum remains: where does our aversion to micromanaging supervisors originate?

The principles of Darwinian selection undermine power-based leadership

The answer lies in our evolutionary past, specifically the psychological adaptations natural selection has ‘hard-wired’ into the human brain. Micromanagement epitomises the power differences involved in top-down leadership. As such it conflicts with the selfish principles of evolution by natural selection, which demand that we all look out for number one; that people resist subordination; that they don’t fall behind on the pecking order.

Every human group has a hierarchy that determines the social status of its members. Social status in turn is linked to mating opportunities (even today), which means that in the small communities of our ancestral past, any genes for quietly accepting an inferior status would quickly have been eliminated from the gene pool – all the while genes that make us strive to keep up with or ahead of our peers have always been flourishing. We can observe this principle in a raw, ancestral form in ancient hunter-gatherer societies, where any attempts by powerful, high-status individuals to dominate the group are invariably resisted by the other members, fiercely and if need be violently. As a renowned anthropologist once put it: All men seek to rule but if they cannot, they prefer to be equal.

In ancestral communities, then, leaders have no power to issue commands. In fact, they have no formal authority whatsoever to rely on. Rather, they emerge bottom-up due to their social skills and the ability to provide group-beneficial services. For instance, when researchers confronted members of an arctic tribe with the notion of leadership, the answer they got was this: “Nobody ever tells an Eskimo what to do. But some people are smarter than others and can give good advice. They are the leaders.” 

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Our ancient minds are mismatched with modern workplaces

Thus, followers are bound to resist – if only subconsciously – being led in a top-down way. It all comes naturally. Naturally selected. The logic of Darwinian evolution practically leaves us with no other option. This is another way of saying that the vertical structure of modern workplaces runs counter to ancestral psychological adaptations – a conflict of interests that plunges corporate leaders into a continuous uphill battle to improve outcomes. Good-bye high-performing team, hello mediocre KPIs.

Again, the problem is not just old-fashioned, autocratic bosses; the problem is hierarchical leadership as such and the vertical, leader-centric mindset that goes along with it. Like a generation of ‘transformational’ leaders before them, the new breed of digital and agile leaders has been thwarted (and bewildered) by at best lukewarm levels of employee engagement that are simply no basis for building an effective team, let alone a smoothly running network of self-reliant teams. Should we be surprised? Hardly. Numerous obituaries announcing the demise of top-down leadership have raised mouth-watering expectations that the purported rise of the title-less leader was for real. Of course, it wasn’t. These expectations were always going to end in disappointment, simply because “a flat hierarchy is still a hierarchy and the foundation of a centrally governed company”. Leaders continue to be regarded – and, misled by position power, often regard themselves – as standing apart from their employees, while comprehensive research proves just how much truth there still is to the old adage that ‘people leave bosses, not companies’.

Horizontal leaders spurn position power

The good news, at last, is that corporate leaders are largely free to disregard the formal authority they have at their disposal. Indeed, they can be taught to pro-actively steer clear of the deceptive dead-end of position power and adopt a horizontal mindset that corresponds to the universal desire for unbossy, confidence-enhancing, win-win team builders the GLOBE project has revealed. To be sure, a horizontal mindset can mean many things. In my book, horizontal leaders eat neither first nor last but put themselves on an equal footing with their employees. They put a premium on building trust and protecting the team; and they put the intrinsic authority they possess to good, unselfish use by effectively coordinating group and network activities. The best of them even manage to kindle the ‘competitive cooperation’ that is a hallmark of high-performing teams. Another key element is preserving and indeed strengthening individual autonomy: horizontal leaders enable their staff without making spurious promises of empowerment.Some lead in this way because acting as a primus inter pares simply reflects their approach to leadership. Others have learned it, often the hard way, having failed as a traditional top-down leader.

As a people manager, then, you might want to be very mindful of the power you have gained the moment you were appointed someone else’s boss. Working against the constraints of our evolved psychology, ignoring or denying them, or simply assuming that people will follow you just because you have been promoted to a leadership position is all but a sure-fire recipe for below-par outcomes, if not outright failure. A recent article shared on LinkedIn sums it up perfectly: We now have evidence suggesting that leaders high in dominance are less successful in the long-run … Whether it’s your organisation’s leadership capabilities or your own development, make sure you invest your capital wisely.

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