Human Governance: Golden Rule or Platinum?
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Avoid the Unfortunate Consequences of The People Paradox

Have you ever heard of The People Paradox? I hadn’t either, although I was well aware of Lord Acton’s famous quote that, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Well, apparently that’s not just a bon mot: power does corrupt. Certainly according to research cited in the HBR.

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In an October 2016 HBR article entitled Don’t Let Power Corrupt You Dacher Kilter describes how twenty years of research has shown him how, in all types of work environments, “people rise on the basis of their good qualities, but their behaviour grows increasingly worse as they move up the ladder.” That's 'The People Paradox.' I am sure you can think of instances in your own experience that support this. I still haven’t forgotten the CEO who completely ignored me when I was introduced to him by my Vice-President manager and added insult to injury by proceeding to question him about me as if I wasn’t there!

Objectionable though this seems, one has to question why such “bad” behaviour is so pervasive and widespread.  Is it possible that this behaviour is “built-into” our DNA as social animals? After all, it is not unique to humans; the consequences for any creature that strays from the clear pecking order of its group can be swift and severe. The fact is, any sort of community almost invariably necessitates some kind of hierarchy. And the hierarchy needs to be sustained.

The consequences of this are profound, because it would mean that the “paradox” is not in fact a paradox. Rather it is an entirely natural phenomenon, which means that this “corruption” is in fact anything but. This, in turn, makes it a lot harder to eliminate than one might envisage.

Good as the remedies identified in the article may seem, because they appear to be looking at the problem the wrong way, they are highly unlikely to provide any meaningful, lasting solution. Finding this necessitates:

  1. Establishing whether this “corruption” is really a problem; and – if it is:
  2. Finding a way to rewire our thinking to change our patterns of behaviour.

On the face of it, the idea that power has a corrupting effect, suggests that there is a problem. This is further substantiated by the article’s remedies, which indicate that more considerate behaviour elicits improved performance and more positive results.  And, if that is not enough, the prevalence of efforts to build employee engagement certainly point to a widespread acknowledgement that all is not well.

If, however, the behaviour is innate, the remedy becomes more of a challenge, as the general failure of efforts to increase employee engagement proves. You need to ask yourself. “How do I avoid keep making the same mistakes? Will the benefits justify the effort?” It’s your decision but one thing is for sure: if this behaviour is replicated at every level in your organisation, the potential benefits will be enormous, likely making the effort necessary.  

The good news is that achieving those benefits does not have to be proportionally enormous. If the “corrupted” behaviour is hard-wired due to the need to survive in hierarchies, the best way to re-programme our thinking has to be to eliminate hierarchy in our organisations. Effectively this means shifting from an organisational structure to an organic structure.  This makes the organisation more responsive, more adaptable and more change efficient. There are organisations that have done this and achieved – and sustained – significant success as a result. What's stopping you becoming one?   


If you like what you have read contact me today for a free 30 minute conversation about how my ‘Every Individual Matters’ Model can provide the catalyst to help you create an organisational culture of ‘Love at Work’ : one where everyone cares and the business becomes our business, so embracing change and transforming – and sustaining – organisational performance.


Bay Jordan

Bay is the founder and director of Zealise, and the creator of the ‘Every Individual Matters’ organisational culture model that helps transform organisational performance and bottom-line results. Bay is also the author of several books, including “Lean Organisations Need FAT People” and “The 7 Deadly Toxins of Employee Engagement” and, more recently, The Democracy Delusion: How to Restore True Democracy and Stop Being Duped.


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