On Influence and Hierarchy in Bureacracies

Friday, November 7, 2014

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

In bureaucracies we often mistake hierarchy as a proxy for influence.

But my view is that hierarchy is knowable, straightforward and discriminate, whereas influence is elusive, subtle and complex.

I consider hierarchy as akin to a hard power, influence as a soft power. And I've always been more interested in soft power then hard. My career path has been one of relationships over level and rewarding work over the greasy pole. My modus operandi (see: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants) has never been about acquiring or pulling rank but rather building, safeguarding and levering reputation and ability to influence.

While I fully admit that sometimes influence flows from hierarchy and that those who ignore hierarchy ignore it at their peril (myself included), I also believe that it is increasingly the case that influence flows from some undefinable blend of serendipity, panache and resolve. I think we tend to prefer hierarchy because it offers the illusion of certainty and allows us to ignore the fact that influence is messy and that it can be neither poured neatly into an organizational chart nor contained within the strict limits of its boxes. And so our bureaucratic cultures continue to mistakenly treat hierarchy as a proxy for influence.

A likely example most would be familiar with is the Executive Assistant (EA) who is actually more like an Executive Director (ED) than an EA.

In my experience, many EAs don't have the rank they ought to. The ones worth their salt (and I've worked with many) are in fact more like EDs. Yes, they may have the tedious task of managing an executive's calendar but they are also the only ones trusted to do so; meaning that if you are the one requesting a meeting with your boss you are essentially at the mercy of the EA.

Now, it's easy to discount them but they have better access leadership and information flows than most - just by way of where they sit. The really good ones are easy to spot: they build skills and subject matter expertise, they sit at management tables, they have their boss's ear and they follow them from one job to another (and/or spend their entire careers in similar roles).

But I digress. All of this to say that the influence isn't a corollary of hierarchy and that many ignore that fact at their peril.

My hunch 

Actors without hard power tend to be better at wielding soft power because they have to, whereas those with hard power are weaker at wielding soft power because they don't. In other words, if hierarchy privileges you, you needn't worry as much about how to influence others, whereas if hierarchy doesn't benefit you, then you need to. As I'm reflecting on this I'm wondering if there is a tipping point (not in the Gladwellian sense) somewhere along your career trajectory where your levers and/or approach changes because there are suddenly more people below you than above you within the system.

This is not a slight to those on either side of the divide, nor do I think it's a hard and fast rule. It is an observation that may explain some of the interpersonal dynamics at play within bureaucracies that so many people find bothersome; namely, executives pulling rank on folks without it and/or folks without rank disrespecting and side-stepping the hierarchy.

What do you think?