As I watched The Last of Us, the latest HBO series, I began to think about how leaders abuse power to manage extended crisis and the consequences for their people.
Crisis means uncertainty, and uncertainty means fear. No one is sure what to do, but doing something is a must. And then someone takes control and starts making decisions. At that point, the rest tend to rely on the leader, hoping for less uncertainty and less fear. If the situation continues indefinitely, people’s fears return and the crisis moves to the next level.
Some voices may be raised to point out that the decisions once made are not working. The problem is still there, and the leader doesn’t seem to know what to do. Some people will start making their own decisions, sometimes against the general rules. With increasing chaos, the immediate response is, at times, abuse of power.
Lack of trust
We don’t have to watch television to see the effects of a lack of trust in society. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is just that.
When people don’t trust their leaders, the self-protection impulse wins, even if the resulting behaviors are not the best for them or the rest of the community. We can’t forget that the first consequence of fear is the reduction of our ability to solve problems.
Our individualism makes us forget that in the face of a crisis, collaboration is a much more effective way to find solutions than competition. First, because a crisis is a complex problem that requires different approaches; second, because it is something that affects the system and not the individual parts.
On the other hand, as long as leaders are human, the fear of losing control leads them to micromanage, to use their power to force people to do what they think is right. As a result, they create more resentment and less cooperation.
Similar effects can be seen in the workplace when a crisis is looming.
Solving complex problems requires collaboration. Understanding individual contribution and responsibility is the first step, even if we don’t have all the answers. This is the job of the leader.
A crisis is always a process of change. Once we come out the other side, nothing will be the same. In addition to the inherent difficulties of managing a change process, leaders have to deal with the lack of answers and the impact this may have on their people. For this reason, giving everyone a sense of ownership in the process from the start is important. This will help people find their place to contribute and hold them accountable for their actions. Rather than telling them exactly what to do and expecting them to blindly follow orders, making them part of the solution could have many benefits. It also requires a higher level of leadership.
If you manage a team, try to train them in accountability and individual contribution to get better results. As a side effect, you will avoid abuse of power.
Image by Denny Müller at Unsplash