Stop confusing “formal power” with “knowing what’s best.”

Formal Power Isn't The Same As Knowledge

Here’s a personal story to open. I worked for ESPN, ESPN.com, and ESPN The Magazine from 2005 to 2011 (bit more on that here). I was ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine from 2007 to 2011. Most of that time, my boss was this woman. She was super nice (although very off-task and really wanted to be working on the TV side and not the digital side, but that’s a whole separate post topic) and honestly, I owe her a lot. I was a total asshole during that time in my life (some things have changed, albeit slowly) and she mostly tolerated me and didn’t fire me, although she probably could have had reason to on a few occasions. She’s a good person and my goal here isn’t to throw her under any kind of bus.

Here’s the thing, though: she had formal power within the digital world of ESPN. Yet, her background was (a) newspapers and (b) television. Those are entirely different worlds than digital, even if you believe the general goal of anything is to “get the right content in front of the right people” and “tell a story.” (Both of those are broadly true, yes.) You see this a lot in media and marketing these days, actually: newspapers are mostly dying out, so their editors/writers take digital roles. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Probably most of the time is the latter category.

So my boss had formal power, which means she was vetted by someone else to lead a unit of people and ultimately have responsibility for the unit’s performance as relates to business or company goals, right?

That above is essentially what formal power is. It means you have responsibility for a unit, a group of people, a project, etc.

Simply having formal power doesn’t mean you have knowledge on the topics at hand, though. In fact, you probably got your formal power by being very strong in one area. When you rise up, though, you may assume responsibility for other areas. Those areas? You may know less about them.

Same deal with ESPN: around 2008, we were working on this site called ESPNTheMag.com. It was supposed to be a “zany” site that reflected ESPN The Magazine’s “sensibility,” but no one had thought even remotely strategically about this fucking thing. ESPN.com, which is a massive behemoth in the sports journalism world, should have had an idea what the hell this thing was. They didn’t. It was all politics and garbage and bickering for months. That’s neither here nor there.

Some of the editors of the actual magazine (the paper product) would come by and tell us what to do. Of course, it was always magazine-centric advice. “That page on the website doesn’t look great. Re-design it.” You can say/do that at a magazine (within your style guide limits, of course). You can’t necessarily say/do that on a digital property without changing some of the code base, etc. It was magazine advice that didn’t really apply to digital in their down periods, then they’d go back to working on the magazine and not speak to us for 2-3 weeks. That cycle went on for about a year.

The point is, all these people had formal power, right? But they didn’t actually have knowledge of a new product/idea they had power over. So we were told to listen to them because they had power and authority — that’s how hierarchy works — but they didn’t actually know what they were talking about on this specific topic. It was new to them, they were older, they came from different backgrounds, etc.

The problem here becomes that senior people — people with formal power, again — well, half the battle there is keeping their power. They don’t want to put themselves in situations where they look incompetent, or look like they don’t know what’s happening.

So they toss out what they do understand — which often isn’t real knowledge related to the new process they’re managing. It’s just knowledge they borrowed from another area they know better.

Sometimes I just wish people with formal power would understand that good ideas and breakthroughs can literally come from anywhere. Simply having formal power over a process doesn’t actually mean that you always know what’s best in the process. To me, this is kind of the root of the whole “employee engagement” issue — be vulnerable, be aware you may fail, and let some rank-and-file people guide a process once in a while.

Ted Bauer


  1. It is not just “senior” leaders that have this problem. There is a bit of a trend today to put enthusiastic young people into roles they don’t know much about in order to bring in fresh new ideas from barely related fields. Then older, wiser subordinates have to implement the young turk’s ideas, no matter how whacky. The error occurs when the person in charge (regardless of age) thinks they need to have all the answers in order to lead. Really, their job should be mostly learning to ask the right questions.

    • This is common in some tech companies, where greenhorns are put in charge of sizeable projects where they may have a fair amount of domain knowledge, but due to relative inexperience remain weak in the implementation area, leading to suboptimal, if not downright clunky designs that an older engineer would have avoided. Suggestions for improvement are deemed impractical or ignored.

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