Monday Musings

Informal Power Networks in the Workplace

Every Monday morning the team at ConnectX, including an occasional guest, deliberate on a challenges of leadership and culture. These papers represent the output of our weekly discussions. They are sometimes pure musings, but sometimes we cannot resist airing recommendations. Primarily though, we intend to stimulate thought around issues that most leaders will face at some time or other. We welcome your feedback!

06 Sep '17

Informal Power Networks in the Workplace

Huko, kuna wenyewe (that place has its owners)!”. You hear it often; everywhere.
‘Owners are a mysterious force behind the company. Sometimes called ‘cartels’, they exist anonymously within the organization, pulling strings and directing events and activities. Our label for them is ‘The Kingpins’.

Kingpins are the power brokers in an organization; wielding power like a phantom dictator despite the presence of an instituted leadership. They influence the rules, the processes and the culture despite the laid down and published procedures.

When a stranger or a new employee walks into the organization, they are confronted by two things: the laid down employee procedures listed in an employee handbook and a set of unwritten ground rules that often determine how things ‘work around here’. So where do these kingpins come from and what is the source of their influence?

From our experience and research, there are four things that make a kingpin: capability, a vacuum, personal stagnation and a forceful personality.

A kingpin is usually someone in a position of influence, a position they use to extend the responsibility entrusted to them. They are often competent employees who have served a few years in that organization. They understand the business and the internal dynamics very well.

Where there is a vacuum of official and formal information or a alck of transparency on procedures, a kingpin will be made. They become the de facto go-to person for anything and everything. This gives them power. They become the only access to a limited resource in a company.

A kingpin is often competent in their ‘technical’ ability to do their job and they might have a specialist skill that gives them job security. What turns them is a lack of growth or progress in the organization. When a potential kingpin is unable to grow, they utilize their energy in other ways. A kingpin could have the experience of the senior manager yet have the rank of a middle level manager. They might sit in a technical role without much leadership responsibility. This state causes them to shift their focus from alignment with the formal objectives and processes in the organization one of common good to one of self-interest.

An additional factor that contributes to the making of a kingpin is personality. While all the above factors may exist, it takes a certain character to become a kingpin. Several personality traits could describe kingpins. These include high self-esteem, frustration, and natural leadership skills. The impact of Kingpins on people is their true mark of identity.

No one grows around a kingpin. Kingpins thrive alone and no one speaks up when they are around and there is an aura of fear around them. The teams around a kingpin can resist organizational change – whether changes in processes or culture. One has to look at a combination of these factors and not just one.

How can leaders deal with Kingpins?

1. Map out the power centers

Understand where the informal power centers are in your organization. Unchecked authority over the distribution of resources is often a source of informal power. A person who is authorized to issue per diems or allowances, with their effectiveness not monitored, automatically becomes a power center. This unofficial power can be reduced by introducing process controls; a segregation of duties and checks and balances. In the example of per diems, the introduction of a dashboard to track and highlight the speed of processing expense claims, and the timeliness of per diem payments, will expose any abuse of informal power.

2. Develop people holistically
Organizations may be have been so focused on building enterprise-wide competency that they forget to focus on/deal with the individual. As employees grow in the organization, they need to align their career plan with organizational goals; for them to become leaders, mentors and coaches. Most kingpins are individuals who are frustrated at their lack of progress and over time, have become defensive and cynical. They are however influential within their peer groups and act as informal leaders to junior or power deprived employees. Energizing kingpins as mentors and coaches while rewarding them for the development of their teams, can increase their feeling of belonging and reduce their negativity. For example: Give them “people objectives” which recognize them if they develop future leaders; Give them objectives which reward the right behaviors, such as walking the talk on culture change; Make them champions of desired organizational change, channeling their influence more positively. Forward thinking organizations give their employees business goals as well as people goals.

3. Clarity: roles and information
Where there is clarity, there will be no confusion. An organization must clearly communicate the processes, procedures, and any other relevant information pertaining to the organization. When there is no communication, a vacuum is created and someone will step into that vacuum.

4. Total commitment to confront the issue
eaders must address the root cause of the factors that allow kingpins to emerge. Kingpins are not hard to recognize, but it is rarer to find a leader who is willing to face the real causes. This is because of a myriad of reasons; from protecting their own jobs to not wanting to deal with the complexity of the matters and the disruption of dismantling informal power structures. As an example, the reality is that one of the sources of a kingpin’s power may include knowledge of, or involvement in, unethical practices. Tackling such a situation will require great sensitivity and determination. However, until the root causes are addressed, the problem will never go away.

The issue of kingpins is intertwined with the culture of the company. A kingpin is a reflection of what is going on internally and can also reflect the external business practices in the company. To tackle kingpins requires that a leader is ready to tackle everything else. Some solutions highlighted here are relatively straightforward, others solutions will take extreme commitment from leadership.

In conclusion, dealing with kingpins must start from the very top of the organization. Leaders need
the courage and the resilience to deal with them.


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