Negative power

by Terence MacNamee

In his book Gods of Management, Charles Handy talks about negative power. By this he means the power that groups and individuals have to hold the organization to ransom. It is particularly prevalent in what he calls Apollonian organizations like the factory, where people are cogs in the proverbial machine. These human cogs, as Handy points out, have the power to take themselves out of the machine. The most obvious way is a strike. Trade unionism learned to wield this as its main weapon in the industrial age.

There are other ways to exercise negative power as well. One that Handy mentions is absenteeism. Apollonian organizations have a lot of this. To cope with the unreliability of the cogs in the machine, Apollonian organizations have slack. They hire more people than they need. This is the price to be paid for efficiency in such an organization. Again, as Handy points out, if a cog falls out of a clock, the clock stops, but organizations which cannot afford to grind to a halt “staff up” so there are replacement cogs at hand.

People do not like being just cogs. People who are not appreciated have ways of making their presence felt. “Negative power is therefore fertilized by unhappiness, low morale or a feeling of powerlessness”, says Handy. Today we can see this not only in industry, but in whole nations. Time and again, voters ignore the appeals of their governments and vote destructively in referendums. Or they vote for right-wing populists who express the inarticulate popular anger and resentment. There are countries in economic trouble where the political leaders want to take the bailout and play ball with the rest of the world, but the people won’t follow, as happened in Greece.

Negative power did not disappear with the industrial age. In the knowledge economy – to the alarm of the new élites – it is alive and flourishing. You cannot eliminate it. It is the power of those who have no power. It is the talk of those who are not listened to.