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Control in a cockpit is usually clearer than in a corporation

30 July 2014

Mrs M and her plane

I have a private pilot’s license and fly (very) small planes (In Australia earlier this year, I flew this plane around the Outback). When you learn to fly a plane you are taught from the start that it is critical to know who is in charge. Control in the cockpit in planes of any size, from my modest aircraft to the A380, is handed from one person to another with the phrase: ‘You have control’, to which the reply is: ‘I have control’, so that no one is in any doubt who is making the decisions.

Control in less lofty workplaces, I have always felt, could do with equally lucid signalling. Alas, things are not always so clear in businesses and in life.

As an employee, the tricky thing about working out who is in charge is that it is not always the person sitting behind the impressive-sounding name plate on the door. In fact, senior managers being eased out often have the grandest titles to soothe the pain and embarrassment of losing their real power.

To make matters worse, you might find there are several people whose official and unofficial approval you need, a trait especially prevalent in large and matrix-driven organisations.

The same plurality holds true if you are a job candidate. Ever wondered why your interview process is taking so many meetings? It’s probably because several people have a say about whether or not you are hired.

Bosses can save their employees and themselves a lot of time by making clear who is calling the shots on a particular decision. For example, when tackling an issue at work, I have taught myself to say in advance whether or not I am open to discussion or whether this is a decision I will be making alone. That way, we don’t spend time debating things that I will almost certainly not change my mind about.

On the other hand, when I make a suggestion because it is worth thinking about, but not one I necessarily support, I say that clearly at the start.

Working out who is in charge is only part of the process, however, especially if you are far removed from the people calling the shots.

Knowing who has influence and will move information to the places it needs to go is just as important, whether you are a chief executive getting vital safety procedures introduced on far-flung factory floors or an ambitious marketing executive desperate to get a company-saving strategy idea to the boardroom.

One way to plot your line of attack is to map out your organisation, noting how and through whom information flows both up and down – and sometimes even from side to side – within the network. But that process can prove so time-consuming that sometimes the dynamics of your organisation will have changed by the time you have finished.

Thankfully, there is another way, discovered by a group of social scientists at US universities MIT and Stanford.

Through research conducted in a group of Indian villages, they have shown that all this mapping isn’t really necessary. If you want to find out who, within a network, is best connected – and probably also who is boss – all you have to do is ask.