There was a fascinating article in the Journal of Management last week on when, why and how some leaders use their power to benefit themselves and others use it to benefit a team, organization or even society as a whole.

The premise was that people who concentrate on self-focused goals (more money, career growth, personal brand, etc.) instead of organization-focused goals (growth, cost savings, etc.) who received an increase in power (promotion) were more likely to act in a self-interested way (make decisions that are good for them versus good for the company). Further, if there is a threat to their power they are even more likely to act in a self-interested way, creating more distance between what’s best for the company and what is actually being done.

Outside of it being a great leadership piece, it highlighted some reasons client/agency or boss/PPC manager relationships break down. And that once it starts to break down, it is likely that things will only get worse unless one side takes a step back and refocuses everyone on what the group is trying to create, versus what problems they are trying to eliminate.

Client/Agency Relationships

Think about it. In client/agency relationships the client typically has the power. And if the client wants a promotion, or to build their resume, or just has strong opinions about the right and wrong things to do in an account, they are more likely to drive the agency to achieve these goals than the greater overall goals for the company.

If these actions work, but the results achieved aren’t the greater company objectives , the client will put pressure on the agency to further pursue those goals, potentially driving the account in the wrong direction. The only logically conclusion is that the client will give notice due to not achieving corporate goals while the account manager will be puzzled because they accomplished the objectives they were told.

On the other hand, agencies, or in-house people that manage PPC, sometimes feel like they are the only ones that know what is happening and thus feel like they have the power. The more they feel like they have the power, the more they are to drive the account towards their goals than the client’s.

If the client then makes the agency and/or account manager feel like the contract and/or job is in jeopardy, you’ll likely increase the chance that they work in self-promoting ways. That is, they’ll try to prove why your ideas are bad, or they’ll do what you say so if things get worse it isn’t their fault. Or they’ll divert their attention to other areas where they will feel like they can win, etc.

The article suggestions three options for preventing this cycle:

• Do not promote those whose goals are highly self-focused
• Make promotions based on merit-based criteria (to reduce risks to power due to the imposter syndrome)
• Establish transparency and visibility of managerial decisions thus increasing accountability

Translation for clients or bosses:

• Do not hire a person or company that is highly focused on building their own brand
• Use merit-based criteria to judge performance (measure objectives, not subjective details such as strategy)
• Establish transparency and visibility of day-to-day account management and performance

Translation for agencies or employees:

• Do not take a job, or sign a client where the main objective is driven by self-focused goals versus bigger picture business objectives (look for people who talk like, “we are creating…” or “we need to get to…” versus those that talk like, “I want to do….” Or “If you can X then I can Y…”)
• Set merit-based objectives before signing the client or taking the job
• Establish transparency and visibility into the way the business sets budgets, judges performance, determines vendors, etc.

Changing Perception

Earlier in this article I mentioned that increases in power resulting in increases in selfish behavior is a cycle that can be stopped if someone takes a step back to refocus everyone on corporate-focused goals versus self-focused goals. It is usually apparent that the cycle is happening when both sides of the conversation are fighting to eliminate problems but have differing ways to do it. The best question I’ve found to reset when this is happening is, “what do we want to create that is different than what we have?”

Notice that the word, “we” is used. This is important because it demonstrates how this issue is collective that only a collaborative effort can solve.

Also, notice how different this feels from focusing on trying to eliminate a problem. This question is focused on creating something different than we have. It can’t be refuted in that you aren’t saying what you have is good or bad. You are just saying that what is wanted is different. It immediately puts the team in the mindset of creating something new.

The follow up question is then, “what structure do we need to create in order to have that?”

The emphasis on this question is in a new process that is likely to achieve what you want. People often ask the first question, figure out what they want, but then just talk about it. They say, “great, we just need to do X and everything will be great.”

My executive coach gave me the metaphor, “you can’t change the course of a river by talking to it; you have to build a structure, a damn, if you want it to flow somewhere different.”

I believe that building structure for creating what you want to be different leads to better power balance, better relationships and ultimately better PPC performance.