Among John Phelan’s challenges when he worked for an electronics-manufacturing company was trying to extract office supplies from Sam. Tracking all supplies by date, Sam would refer to his records of your last paper clip withdrawal to determine if you really need a new box. He would require the stub of an old pencil before he dispensed a new one. And the remains of an old pen had better show no signs of chewing, which might have sucked the ink away from the tip. If it did, recalls Phelan, Sam would instruct you to blow the ink back down the tube towards the tip.
One had to surrender to Sam’s authority. “If he didn’t feel you were paying homage enough, there were several lists of things he needed to do before he got to your request,” says Phelan. “Everything on the other side of that supply-closet door was his kingdom.”
You expect authoritarian rule to come from the corner office, but tyranny from any other direction blindsides you, potentially bringing your work to a dead stop. Lords of smaller corners can highlight the fragility of workplace productivity and they are also another argument for having friends in lower places.
“The formal organization chart only gives you one aspect of the organizational-power topography,” says Richard Boyatzis, professor in the school of management and psychology at Case Western Reserve University. “One of the competencies in every study of outstanding leaders is their degree of organizational awareness—reading the informal networks, like influence, in the organization.”
Misreading the choke points, sources of influence or all those whose rings need kissing can spell disaster. Everyone, even the titled-brass class, should look down their noses at their own risk. “You might have the keys to the kingdom,” human-resources executive Mike Farrell notes, “but if you don’t have the keys to the gate, you’re shafted.”
And some gatekeepers drive you nuts. When Frank Gastner worked as a manufacturer’s representative, he had to work with a “totally bitter and unpleasant” purchasing agent. No one would get anything without filling out a requisition form. When a colleague needed to requisition more requisition forms because he ran out, her reply: “Fill out a requisition.”
She lent him one of hers, and he complied. In another case, the woman didn’t want to pay the stated price for a new machine her company had already begun to use, making the audacious claim that it was “used”. Says Gastner: “She seemed to be able to take whatever authority she wanted.”
Crossing such authority has harsh consequences. J.J. Stives, who has worked for 13 companies, once argued with an agent in the travel department over taking a train instead of a plane, which was more expensive. She resisted because it didn’t comport with company policy. So Stives had his boss overrule her.
That went over poorly. From that point on, Stives says he was singled out for infractions such as not having receipts for valet-parking tips and his expense reports were bounced back.
“The travel baroness red-flagged any travel reports that came in from me,” he says. “Anything to slow down the reimbursement and let it sit on my credit card so I paid interest.”
Authority in unlikely places means being told to wait your turn while the person remains deep in thought. Your request will be followed by a sigh, some raised eyebrows indicating your order is a tall one and a shake of the head indicating that its chances for completion are dubious, barring divine intervention.
When Robert Moliski, an executive recruiter, was in the navy, one supply officer running the foreign currency exchange would begin a power dance whenever they pulled into an overseas port. “It always seemed like he was doing us this big favour when, in fact, he was just doing his job,” recalls Moliski. “He would take the same sort of swagger that you see someone take who is getting in their car when another is waiting on their space. No rush, no hurry—just relishing the situation.”
The aggravation inflicted isn’t always intentional. When Amy Abbie Robinson worked for a government agency, she had to trudge to the basement of the building to get approval for photocopies, where she would encounter a meticulous gatekeeper. “She would look over your little request very carefully,” she says. “People’s tendency to create a fiefdom creates huge bottlenecks to an otherwise efficient organization.”
Sometimes, you have to admire their humbling effect on worse tyrants. At Evan Steingart’s consumer products company, an inventory-transfer clerk had to approve the shipment of all goods for a highly compensated, highly entitled, sales force. They’d bark at him, “Just get it done!” and otherwise treat him like dirt.
That, understandably, annoyed the clerk. “If he saw you were in a hurry, he was going to tell you that he couldn’t do it right away,” says Steingart. “He wanted to feel like they needed him more than he needed them.”
“They needed him more than they realized,” admits Steingart.
Write to Jared at firstname.lastname@example.org