Expectations and Organizations: Power-Seeking as a Response to Individual Anxiety

Fear is rampant in organizations. While today’s sources of terror and panic are more banal than wild animals and hunger, members of companies, governments and non-profits face mercurial managers, passive aggressive colleagues and murky indicators of group & individual progress. Fortunately, society spends years ironing out the instinctively wrinkly responses to control and uncertainty. Good organization dwellers are agreeable, emotionless, and solutions-oriented. Thriving in an organization requires these docile traits. Organizations and their members usually repeat that which worked well in the past; the purpose of organizing people into groups is to make achieving goals easier, more efficient and reliable. Once a group figures out how to systematically achieve its goals, doing so is mechanical.

Bad organization dwellers are everywhere, however. The desire to cooperate is overwhelmed in many (I’ll call them Heretics) by the desire to re-define, to accelerate, or to invent. Irascible, unfaithful, and idealistic organization members experience anxiety when their expectations do not meet reality: these individuals find it impossible to trust their superiors with the task of thinking about the future and cannot help asking why a few too many times. As with distracted parents of curious children, the leaders of organizations lose patience with Heretics who are more focused on understanding and change than on executing a job description written to fulfill the group’s goals.

For people who find it difficult to conform to these values and mandates of organizations, there are options. Heretics can go it alone and become an organization of one, as many artists, writers, consultants, and stand-up comedians choose to do. If the organization-less path is not an option, the Heretic employee can look to the pressure valve that power-seeking offers. Power seekers follow Nietzsche’s path, messing with the game’s rules instead of playing by them.

Faithlessness paired with acquiescence is a dangerous combination for the mind. The atheist’s nightmare is mandatory church attendance with closely monitored prayer and shame-enforced tithing. If the organization is not to be escaped, hacking the game is a way to take back a measure of control. Heretics who seek and gain power are proactively rather than reactively hypocritical, a much firmer existential position for a conscious being. Fighting can be more meaningful than subservience, particularly if winning is possible, and even if one’s motives do not match organizational doctrine.

The Heretic who decides to exercise his or her will to power plays a dangerous game. Organizations create incentives that reward some individualistic behavior, but they expect their leaders to have evenly split personalities between group-orientation (externally displayed) and self-orientation (usually negotiated behind closed doors and only made public if influential stakeholders demand it). By playing the game in bad faith, players respond to the transactional, contract-oriented, and controlling nature of organizations (thanks, Milton & Frederick). There are many who would argue that the Heretic’s path to power is against society; lots of people don’t like hypocrisy. Others might argue that gaining power in any organization requires playing the game and preserving the organization in a way that naturally furthers the organization’s purpose. More importantly, power-seeking Heretics set themselves up for a crisis of meaning. A rebel who accepts that their cause is doomed has no reason to fight and the theory of change that requires entering the belly of the beast is nonsense.