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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2003: Management

Recommendations like these have been made before, but too often they have come across as “desirable outcomes” rather than as to-do items. The authors have given every manager who is serious about change a good place to start and an excellent process and rationale to go with it. Radical decentralization minimizes the accumulation of managerial power at the top of organizations and, through its transparency, avoids creating contexts in which power can be abused. The book’s organization is a model of clarity, and every chapter has helpful summaries.

Managing Power Plays
The exercise of power, both legitimate and illegitimate, can damage people and organizations in many ways. Some of these effects are documented in two recent management books. In When You Say Yes But Mean No, Leslie Perlow, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, discusses the problem of silence and the suppression of conflict within organizations.

The use and abuse of power is not the only cause of organizational silence, but it is probably the leading one. Various contexts and cultures impose and encourage silence: Many egalitarian organizations, for example, develop norms of politeness, where members refrain from discussing issues that divide them. Such silence can perpetuate itself in a vicious spiral — silence begets silence. Whatever its causes, the result of organizational silence is the same — learning stops at both the individual and group levels, because people, cut off from timely feedback, are unable to take corrective measures to deal with identifiable problems.

The core of Perlow’s book is a compelling story about a dot-com startup she observed in her capacity as an organizational ethnographer. With its entire life cycle compressed into a space of two years, the firm goes through the well-known stages of conception, birth, takeoff, maturity, decline, and death with bewildering speed. At each stage, decisions are made that do not have the commitment of the entire Core Group, but concerns are rarely voiced, let alone confronted: Indeed, the pressure to go fast seems to have exacerbated the problem. The company drifts, at first slowly and then suddenly, into bankruptcy.

The antidotes to endemic silence suggested by Perlow are not rocket science. Someone has to break the organizational pattern, and only a person changing his or her own behavior can do this. This will require “deviant” actions — actions that challenge the organization’s norms, and obviously this is done more easily from a position of authority and by restricting one’s targets to the core issues. The objective of the pattern-breaker is to seek mutual understanding by turning around difficult situations and developing the support of others. There’s nothing new here, but Perlow does her readers a service by dramatizing the pervasiveness of organizational silence and the damage that it can do.

The second of the books dealing with managing conflict and the negative consequences of power is by Peter Frost, the Edgar F. Kaiser Professor of Organizational Behaviour on the Faculty of Commerce at the University of British Columbia. He uses the powerful image of pollution to produce a far more visceral book about the damage created in organizations by the insensitivity to other people’s feelings that is the hallmark of the abuse of power. Toxic Emotions at Work is among the few management books able to convey to the reader the glandular experience of the emotional phenomena it describes.

The feelings this arouses are not pleasant: The book consists of series of vignettes of “poisoned” organizations, unrelieved by any lighter moments. Because he believes emotional pollution to be systemic in human organizations, Frost deals less with the causes of and cures for this pollution than with the handling of the symptoms of organizational toxicity, by people he calls toxin handlers. Reading the book is a bit like stepping into the organizational equivalent of a hospital emergency room: The toxin handlers battle away bravely, like so many ER surgeons, sacrificing their health and well-being in the process. But unlike in the ER, there is little satisfaction in restoring sick and damaged organizations to health. The toxin handlers struggle while insensitive managers and flawed systems continue to drip poison.

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