Deal with a High Power Donkey

 

You know the type: Donkeys in middling positions just powerful enough they can cloud your sunny day when they choose.   A recent essay in the Harvard Business Review on these keepers of gates and keys observes: “Being in a role that has power but lacks status leads people to demean others.”

What to do?  Probably not what you feel like doing, if you’re like me: give the lowlife a piece of your mind.  The Harvard study suggests quite a different direction.  But first a story from my own life to consider what’s driving the behavior.

 * * * * *

The jack would not hand over the money he owed us.  We had just delivered two hundred pounds of potatoes in sacks and stacked them neatly on the shelves of his two-bit neighborhood grocery store. Now he refused to pay.   “Nope, not gonna pay. Maybe later,” John Booth said crossly as he wiped his hands on his apron and sauntered into the back of his store.

As a teenager helping my dad run the potato route from our farm, I hated John Booth’s grocery.  He had no complaints about our potatoes.  He didn’t have money problems.  He just took pleasure in being ornery.

Every few weeks, after we’d spent ten minutes heaving sacks of spuds from our truck onto his shelves and it was time to collect payment, he’d pull his pointless go-slow stunt.  Just for the heck of it.   Sometimes we’d go on and come back later.  Other times we’d hang around and wait him out.  My dad would go and coax a bit.  In the end we always got the cash, but often only after a wait of fifteen minutes or more.

I sat with a knot in my gut in our delivery truck, bored and confused, while we waited.   There was work at home, yet here we sat.   Worse was seeing my dad, a patient man whose intelligence and good humor won respect from everyone else, reduced to helplessness by this bent stick of a grocery man.

Running a neighborhood grocery in a small town, John Booth was but a few rungs above the bottom of the social ladder.  Yet in a perverse way he held rather significant power over us, at least after we’d lugged our potatoes onto his shelves.    My father’s need for customers and his reluctance to make a scene allowed Booth to lord it over a busy working man and his earnest sons for a quarter of an hour whenever he felt like it.

Why?

Lacking status hurts, say the HBR authors: “It makes us feel bad about ourselves and makes us want to act out against others.”  Low status people refrain generally from such behavior out of fear of consequences.  But in moments when they occupy roles that give them  power, they are no longer inhibited.

The result can be widespread social conflict, as people seek respite from their bad feelings about themselves by exercising power in hostile ways against anyone unable or unwilling to create consequences.

Although the HBR study examines only workplace dynamics, perhaps it goes without saying that we live in a time of increasing attacks by people of relatively low educational and economic status against truly powerless people, such as immigrants.

What to do?  The Harvard study suggests:

  1. Look at the structural dynamics.
    The study suggests that leaders in conflicted organizations should not assume that conflict is purely personality-driven.   Instead they should consider “the structural dynamics that can lead to workplace tension in order to minimize it.”  Don’t write off abuse of power by low-status people as merely a sign of individual weakness.   Instead consider the possibility that there may be issues of respect and esteem for these individuals that also need to be addressed.
  2. Seek to bring status into alignment with power.   This often means doing a better job of recognizing and honoring low-power people.  Avoid organizational changes that strip employees of power without compensating them with increased status.
  3. Improve public recognition of the efforts of people in low-status, high-power roles. “If your employees sense that you respect the role, they likely will too.”

A natural problem-solver,  my dad found the inner strength to respond in ways remarkably similar to those recommended in the HBR study for peers and colleagues of low-status, high-power persons: Recognize that such persons often harbor insecurities related to their lack of status.  “Go out of your way to show respect,” the authors recommend.  “They will appreciate it, and you will stand out as an ally in the future.”

For my dad, that meant forbearance with Booth.  Though clearly frustrated, I never witnessed him reply disrespectfully.  I have no idea if he ever won appreciation from the quirk.  But he got what he cared about most: He held faithful to his personal code of decency, he avoided escalating a dicey situation, and he retained Booth as a much-needed customer.

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