The July edition of the Harvard Business Review has a fascinating article that talks about being in the ‘in-crowd’. Titled, ‘Are You In the In Crowd?’, author Art Kleiner discusses an intriguing – and previously covert – aspect of organisational dynamics. Read on….
Ever wonder why an initiative fails to be implemented, despite all the signs by leadership that they are serious about implementing that initiative? According to consultant and author Art Kleiner, there’s a fair chance that the ‘in crowd’ has flexed its muscles to prevent change.
The in crowd comprises a group (or groups) whose perceived interests are taken into account in the decision making processes. This may be a conscious or unconscious act.
Interestingly, despite the power of the in crowd, there is rarely any explicit discussion about it. In small organisations, there may be only one in crowd. In larger organisations, there may be a number of in crowds, linked in various ways, each vying for more power in the eyes of the ultimate in crowd – what Kleiner calls the ‘CEO’s Kitchen Cabinet’.
The existence of an in crowd raises a number of intriguing leadership issues. As Kleiner puts it:
In most organisations, the stubborn fact is that we can confer legitimacy on anyone but ourselves. Indeed, what people conventionally call leadership is, at bottom, the ability to get others to confer legitimacy on us – and thus to get others to put us in the core group. (page 4)
This gives rise to an interesting paradox, in that the in crowd can only influence with the consent of the governed. Yet this influence can be exerted with surprising force.
Even in those contexts known to have authoritarian regimes, leaders know that they cannot lead from the power of their positions alone. Kleiner cites as an example a young US army lieutenant who discovered during the Vietnam War that his subordinates could and did pull rank. They openly disobeyed him.
Kleiner talks about the process of amplification – where a core group member’s remarks, actions and body language are magnified by followers. We’ve all seen this – the act of interpreting a leader’s comments of actions results in a perception that it is known what the leader wants, and actions follow.
This cycle of interpretation and magnification can have serious negative repercussions. People can try to ‘smoke out’ the needs and wishes of the core group and hope they got it right.
Meanwhile, the leaders in the same organisation can sit back and bemoan the lack of initiative demonstrated by their staff.
This cycle of mistrust builds on itself – resulting in there being little or no direct communication. In the absence of direct communication, power clues and cues are used -including office sizes, who speaks at meetings, what gets recognised and who is asked to share an opinion.
Using our language, the in crowd are the ‘UGR Guardians’ – they strongly influence the way things are done and anyone who fights against the prevailing UGRs will be considered an outsider. If a leadership team wishes to change the culture of an organisation, it could do worse than identify the members of the in crowd to get their genuine support for the required changes.