Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good
Drawing courtesy of Pierce Morgan
Sometimes, learning works quite well when it’s based on negative examples. We learn what not to do. Negative examples, however, may also prove problematic for at least two reasons.
First, when one has to make decisions quickly, as in sports, having an image or rule about what not to do can actually make it more likely that you do the exact thing you are trying to avoid! My least favorite thing to hear on the golf tee is someone familiar with the course pointing out the rather large obvious lake lying before us – a lake that the tee shot must carry. “Well, you can see that there’s a giant lake right in front of you. Be sure not to hit it in the lake. No. You don’t want to go into that lake. Believe me, I’ve hit the lake a hundred times. Don’t go in the lake.” Of course, as pointed out in The Winning Weekend Warrior, before even beginning your pre-shot routine, you need to turn this into a positive image. Pick a very specific spot on the green where you will be landing the ball.
Some readers may remember the ancient vector graphics video game, Asteroids, in which the user controls the image of a tiny rocket ship which must shoot the asteroids to break them up while at the same time avoiding being hit by one of the asteroids. I discovered that it was much more effective for me to find paths and steer my ship through the paths than it was to “look out for the asteroids.” That latter method got me staring at the asteroid as it smashed into my wavering, wobbling ship.
Second, and aside from the psychological effect of putting a negative in your head, the other problem with negative examples is that it may not be obvious what to do even if you are able to understand and avoid what not to do. You may hear, at various points, a thousand different things not to do while trying to hit a golf ball; e.g., don’t look up so soon; don’t let your foot slip; don’t swing so hard; don’t be so tense; etc. Put them all together — and there are still a thousand wrong ways to swing the golf club!
Despite these potential cautions, I decided to try blogging about an Anti-Pattern: something to be avoided while trying to foster teamwork and collaboration. My aim, in the course of the discussion, is to clarify what one should do instead as well as point out the many and varied problems that can arise from letting Power Trumps Good. Of course, hopefully, the Patterns already suggested comprise a large set of positive best practices to foster effective teamwork and collaboration. By the way, in addition to avoiding Power Trumps Good, the Anti-Patterns mentioned in the link below, in my opinion, are to be avoided, not only for software development but any time you are trying to be productive in a collaborative way.
Author, reviewer and revision dates:
Created by John C. Thomas May, 2018.
For various reasons, cultures throughout history have found it practical to award and assign specific powers to particular people. When this is done, it sometimes happens that people in power, instead of fulfilling their duty to do what is best for all within their purview, they simply do what is best for themselves or a small group. This is considered an Anti-Pattern in that it is bad for that individual, for the institution they have a duty to, and for the society as a whole. In order to prevent such corruption, specific preventative and curative counter-measures must be undertaken such as “Balance of Powers” or “Removal from Office.”
Groups across many contemporary cultures and throughout history have found it useful to have some people in specific roles and these roles sometimes include the power to make decisions. This is not the only possible method. One can insist on consensus for every decision. However, consensus-based decision making can become quite inefficient, slow, and contentious. In much of Medieval Europe, a widespread mythology held that royalty was beyond question and reproach; that their powers came from God. The monarch sometimes bestowed lesser rights, powers, and responsibilities on others. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence set forth quite a different view:
In this view (influenced by European intellectuals but also quite likely by the practices and philosophy of the Iroquois Nation – see Forgotten Founders) rights do not come from government. They are considered natural rights. The power of the government does not come from God. The power of the government comes from the people governed. This is a crucial change. Power is not, in the fundamental view of America, absolute and it certainly does not come from above; it comes from the people governed. People in governmental positions of power, whether elected or selected, are not above the law. Indeed, they swear to uphold the law. Their power is limited and temporary. Later in this Anti-Pattern, we will see why this is crucial.
Power can trump good in other spheres besides government. In our capitalistic society, we have often chosen to put property rights above human rights. In order to accomplish many sorts of complex work that takes place over long periods of time, several fundamental elements must be brought together: a place to do the work; competent labor to do the work; tools to allow the work to be done more efficiently; money or capital to pay for the place, the workers’ labors, and the tools. Most typically, the capital is required before any actual goods or services are provided. It is possible to imagine many ways to organize such work and many ways have been effectively tried. But most commonly, in the United States, the people who provide the capital choose various leaders who have power to decide many things about the work practices, the work process, the workers, and the workplace. This is not logically necessary, but it is common. (For example, in a frontier town, people spontaneously organized themselves into a “bucket brigade” to transport water from a source and use it to try to douse a fire).
Whenever a person finds themselves in a position of power, whether it is because of a capitalistic endeavor, a government office, a volunteer, effort, or even by virtue of being a parent, babysitter, or older sibling, it is sometimes tempting to use that power to make decisions that are good for one’s self as opposed to what is good for the organizational role that one has been entrusted with. For example, a boss may push for an inefficient process that will require them to hire many more people thus giving them more power (even though it will lose money for the organization whose interests they are supposed to be looking out for). A US government official might make “deals” with foreign dignitaries, not because it is good for the country, but because it is good for them. A volunteer in charge of decorations for a party might pay twice the going rate for balloons to his brother-in-law in order to get a good deal later on wedding decorations. A babysitter might find it conducive to studying homework by putting the kids to bed earlier than the parents requested and before the kids wanted to go to bed.
In the worst-case scenarios, people use their positions of power to hurt someone out of vengeance, or to sexually or physically abuse someone just because they can. A person in power always has some sort of duty, often even a solemnly sworn duty, to do what’s best for some other entity. Whether it be a mayor, a councilman, a US Senator, a CEO, a supervisor, a teacher, a movie producer — there is always some entity on whose behalf that person is supposed to be working. They are not meant to use their power on their own behalf and particularly not when their interests are counter to the interests of the body for whom they are supposedly using their power. Lord Acton famously said that “…power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
A person in power who abuses that power will inevitably (and by definition) do things that are ineffective, inefficient, and unethical with respect to the goals that it is his or her duty to work toward reaching. This weakens the organization and corrupts anyone who goes along with the charade of doing good while doing bad. People tend to lose faith in the corrupted organizations, not just in the corrupting individuals.
- For purely practical reasons, it is often efficient to invest one person or a small group of people with special powers.
- People who have the power to make a class of decisions may often be chosen because they have particular experiences or skills in making that class of decisions.
- Most human beings take their responsibilities seriously most of the time.
- It is tempting to use power to do what’s best for one’s self, one’s family, or one’s political faction as opposed to doing what’s best for the organization for which one has sworn to make decisions.
- When people find out that someone has abused their power, they are necessarily upset and will try to prevent further abuses.
- When someone knows that they have abused their power, they will try to use their power to cover up that abuse.
- Among secondary abuses of power, lying about what is done and the reasons for what is done will be foremost.
- When people in power “get away with” abusing their power, they will tend to do it again in a more and more outrageous fashion.
- When people in an organization come to know that the person in charge makes decisions on the basis of what they perceive to be best for them, they either leave the organization or “go along” in which case, they will no longer try to do or argue for what is best for the organization as a whole, but only what will be approved by the authority figure.
- When a power abuser ends up surrounded by sycophants who only them them what they want to hear, they may come to believe the lies they tell. In any case, a power abuser almost always ends up “disconnected” from reality. No-one whom the abuser puts stock in will speak “truth to power.”
Institutions must fight against the tendency of people in power to misuse that power. There are a number of specific methods. For example, in the United States, people in the Federal Government who abuse their power can be impeached; that is, they can be removed from office. In many cases, there are limits to the length of time someone can hold an office or at least until they are again chosen.
Most companies move their executives around to different positions. Partly this is to reduce their ability to abuse power. Many companies have alternative channels of communication to help stem power corruption; e.g., IBM has an “Open Door” policy which basically means that an employee may go outside their normal hierarchy of control if they believe someone above them is doing something illegal, unethical, or clearly counter-productive. Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental have policies to protect “whistle blowers.” The United States Constitution was written to ensure a “balance of power.” The three main branches of government: Executive, Congressional, and Judicial have separate powers and the ability to check each other’s power. In addition, in truly democratic countries, there is a “Free Press” which acts as a kind of limit on potential abuses of power by finding out and reporting on such abuses.
- At one point in IBM’s history, the executives in charge of any one branch of the company had a lot of power over that particular branch. This made it tempting for the executive in charge to maximize profits for their part of the company rather than for the company as a whole. For example, the person in charge of very large computers might wish to extend their product line to medium and even to very small computers in order to enhance their overall revenue. This might increase revenue for that part of the company (as well as that executive’s power, prestige, and bonus) but lower overall revenue and particularly lower it for those parts of the company who were supposed to make medium-sized or small computers. IBM therefore had a “non-concurrence” process. All executives were required to share their plans with other executives. If the plan seemed problematic for some other part of IBM, that other part of IBM could “non-concur” with the proposed plan and the Central Management Committee would have final say on each of the plans. This is another example of “checks and balances” on absolute power.
2. Within the Federal Government, there is an Office of Government Ethics. The purpose is to have an agency not under the power of those in charge to be able to make independent determinations of the ethics of various situations. However, the Director of that office, Walter Shaub, resigned in July of 2017 because the White House refused to follow the same rules that other White Houses have followed for the past four decades. https://www.npr.org/2017/07/06/535781749/ethics-office-director-walter-shaub-resigns-saying-rules-need-to-be-tougher
3. Ultimately, when people feel that power has been misused for personal gain or to benefit a small group at the expense of a much larger group, some kind of chaotic change seems inevitable. For example, The Magna Carta was designed to balance power between King John and some rebellious Barons. It seemed to work for awhile, but soon Kings came to repudiate it and various wars and bloodshed resulted. It would seem that anyone in power (at least anyone with even a passing knowledge of history) would realize that misusing power is ultimately a bad idea, even for the power abuser. But apparently, the process of surrounding oneself only with those who are afraid to speak truth to power eventually makes the person or coterie “in charge” too divorced from reality to make good decisions.
If the abuse of power goes unchecked, the entire purpose and structure of an organization becomes corrupted much as untreated cancer can over-run an entire human body and end up killing it. Power abuse, as described above, has a negative effect on the one doing the abuse. It tends to make them disconnected from reality. As their decisions become worse and worse and more and more blatantly self-serving, people will tend to leave positions around the power-monger whether actually resigning from positions or mentally “giving up.” Those who stay will tend to be the least capable and most cowardly. This in turn, means that qualities such as being ethical, knowledgeable, effective, efficient, reflective, and generous will not be rewarded while qualities such as being sycophantic, duplicitous, and weak-willed will be rewarded. As a result, those with ethical standards or even simple competence to do a good job will tend to avoid working near the center of corruption.
In the Anti-Pattern Power Trumps Good, the word “Good” has many meanings. Those in power will tend to make decisions that are not for the common good, but only for personal gain or the gain of a small group. In this sense, “power trumps good.” But other “good” things even without much ethical content such as being effective and efficient tend to suffer as well. Orders are carried out without much question even if those orders are contradictory, plainly stupid, and when they are not actually producing anything “good” even for those in power. Not only is the system that arises from power abuse ineffective and inefficient in getting things done; it is also mean-spirited. It fosters cruelty, exploitation, dishonestly, and ignorance. People in such a system often feel trapped and feel bad about themselves. They are often subject to abuse from above and they then transmit this abuse to those below them in the hierarchy. Those people, in turn, promulgate more cruelty to others below them in the hierarchy as well as to their family members and pets. Such people seldom take it upon themselves to learn more or to improve their skills. They are typically too worried about keeping their position to “waste time” in any intellectual pursuits.
Johansen, B. (1982), Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Commons Press.
Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.
Thomas, J. C. (2001). An HCI Agenda for the Next Millennium: Emergent Global Intelligence. In R. Earnshaw, R. Guedj, A. van Dam, and J. Vince (Eds.), Frontiers of human-centered computing, online communities, and virtual environments. London: Springer-Verlag.
Thomas, J. C. (2015). The Winning Weekend Warrior: How to Succeed at golf, tennis, baseball, football, basketball, hockey, volleyball, business, life, etc. CreateSpace. http://tinyurl.com/ng2heq3
Note to readers and followers: I am planning to end the current project of best practices in collaboration and teamwork around the end of June. If anyone would like to suggest a Pattern to be added, now would be a good time! Even if you don’t have a specific Pattern, any comments or suggestions are welcome. You might also enjoy some of my books which are all available on Amazon.