Simon Terry

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Arbitrary Power

‘A tyrannick and arbitrary power …is contrary to the Will and Happiness of any rational being’. – Benjamin Franklin

Arbitrary power has a huge effect on the human psyche. We have devoted much of our efforts at civilisation to restrain its negative effects. So why does your organisation still have arbitrary power?

The Civilisation of the Arbitrary

The cost of arbitrary power on human performance is real. We have spent centuries trying to restrain it.

We began sacrificing to fickle gods in efforts to control the weather, prosperity or safety in a harsh and uncertain world. We build institutions to protect us from the arbitrary powers of other tribes and eventually our own. We invented insurance to mitigate the uncontrollable. Our culture is rife with constraints on untrammelled power: etiquette, rule of law, political systems, etc.

The Last Domain

We’ve come a long way to constrain the arbitrary power in our businesses. All sorts of legal and social changes have made the modern organisation in many ways different to that of the early capitalists. However our organisation remain the social sphere with the strongest residual legacy of arbitrary power.

The costs of fickle managers are real. Engagement is poor. Trust is low. The psychological costs of a highly uncertain workplace are rising. We even impose our corporate power on customers and the community in arbitrary ways. All this results in wasted human potential at work and wider social impacts

If we have spent so much effort to constrain power and to make it fit within human relationships, why don’t we extend that throughout our workplace? Next time you have a choice ask yourself is there a way to make this process more engaging, transparent and predictable? You may not change the results of the process but you will be making work more human and improving the long term outcomes.


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