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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Anyone Around Here Nervous?

S+B: This suggests that the source of strength for people in business is actually themselves as individuals. It’s not their organization or its power structure. Is that really true?
Yes, it is. People are on their own now whether they’re in a big company or a small company. Employees used to operate in the workplace with safety nets. If things didn’t work out, they were transferred or given less work until they retired. There used to be a place to land. Not anymore. For better or worse, there are very few safety nets out there today. It’s a very unforgiving world.

Accountability is now reaching down to the individual level. The work unit is no longer a group in which the individual can be virtually anonymous. Consider a big company today, when an analyst pulls it apart to determine which are the bad units holding the organization back, peeling back the layers of the business units to expose the divisions and eventually the people themselves who are screwing up. A really good manager recognizes there is now much more transparency and no avoiding being fingered for slowing things down if you don’t operate on all cylinders all the time. The employees are also beginning to realize that now they cannot hide ineptitude. And so they’re moving to a higher standard, a higher level.

When employees move to a higher performance level, they can influence the organization. And I think that the managers who realize that — who understand how to motivate people who view themselves as individuals with some degree of power within the organization — are going to be very successful. Managers who don’t understand this, and there are a lot of them, are going to have real problems. The boss who calls people in and says, “We’re doing it this way, ‘A, B, C,’” and who repeats “A, B, C,” when his worker says, “Well, what about D?” — he or she is going to have a hard time. In this new period of accountability, the manager will be found out. An inability to lead and to get the most out of individuals will be revealed. If a manager is open to accepting new ideas from his or her workers, such a manager is also open to accepting part of the blame if things don’t work out perfectly as planned.

That’s a good thing for the organization, and for the individual. It gives people a shared responsibility for the enterprise.

S+B: The definition of power in your view would be something like the confidence and judgment to act? And the definition of influence would be the ability to communicate with people and meet them halfway?
That’s right. If you are competent at what you are doing and make efforts to continuously effect even tiny, incremental improvements, you will have power in the workplace — no matter what your anxieties are about the trends that you believe are lined up against you. And only then will you have the potential to gain significant influence within your organization.

S+B: You have said, “There are those who make things happen, there are those who watch what happens, and there are those who wonder what happened.” But is it really necessary for everybody in the workplace to be a person who “makes things happen?”
No. There are some people who wind the stem of the watch and who make things happen, virtually every day. But the vast majority of people are those who watch what happens and — to make an important distinction — participate. The people who participate with the stem-winder are very important, because everyone can’t be a chief. The role of the troops that take direction is critical if they follow with just as much competence, confidence, and often empowerment and value as their leaders demonstrate. They’re like the members of a unit in the army. The leader may say, “We’re going to take the ridge. And here’s how we’re going to do it.” Well, if you don’t operate as a team, that’s not going to happen. If just one person on the team breaks down, the whole team breaks down.

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  1. Robert L. Dilenschneider, The Corporate Communications Bible (New Millennium Entertainment, 2000): An exploration of public relations from a veteran in the field.
  2. Robert L. Dilenschneider, The Critical 2nd Phase of Your Professional Life: Keys to Success for Ages 35 to 50 and Beyond (Citadel, 2003): A guide to navigating a career for people approaching middle age.
  3. Art Kleiner, “Fearlessness: The Last Organizational Change Strategy,” s+b Leading Ideas Online, 9/25/07: Margaret Wheatley comments on the dilemmas facing anxiety-ridden individuals.
  4. Christopher Vollmer, Always On: Advertising, Marketing, and Media in an Era of Consumer Control (McGraw-Hill, 2008): A marketer’s guide to the new media environment and the opportunities it presents.
  5. Steven Wheeler, Walter McFarland, and Art Kleiner, “A Blueprint for Strategic Leadership,” s+b, Winter 2007: For the leader who wants to be a “stem-winder,” how to get the most from the context around you.
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