HR & Management

What Westworld teaches us about unchecked power

9 min read

22 February 2018

Russell Smith, founder of RS Chartered Accountants, talks about what we can learn from the TV show Westworld about unchecked power.

Business founders, directors and executives can leverage unparalleled levels of corporate power if allowed to go unchecked. In both large and small businesses, this can be dangerous and result in serious managerial blunders that devastate brands.

Real world examples include the likes of Marissa Mayer, who took over Yahoo! in 2012 and effectively ran it into the ground. Yet, looking to more extreme examples, there can be no better showcase for the dangers of unchecked powers than Dr. Robert Ford in the hit HBO series Westworld.

The founder of a futuristic theme park designed around artificial intelligence (AI), Ford uses his influence and unhindered control to exact his own ideas without regard for the business he created.

The result? He has single-handedly destroyed the commercialisation of the company; costing not just livelihoods and income, but also lives. The actions of Ford serve as valuable lessons for the risks posed by unchecked power, but what exactly did this mean for the fictitious company of Delos Incorporated, and what could it mean for your brand if you were to experience rogue and uncontrollable management?

You can be surprised

Unchecked power means individuals have the ability to make decisions and carry out work without the approval, or indeed knowledge of other business members. Ford exhibits such behaviour multiple times throughout the series, from building personal machines to secretly proliferating conscious thought within the AI.

His authority means he becomes unbound from normal management processes and effectively operates as a free agent within his own business.

What this means for the Delos management team is that they are unable to predict or appropriately react to scenarios forced upon them by rogue employees. A good example of this is that after huge investment in a new storyline for the park, Ford immediately dismisses it upon presentation and puts an end to the project, wasting vast quantities of resources on his own whim.

Giving one person the power to effect such change without potential for pushback creates an environment of uncertainty for a brand; a trait no business wants to be associated with.

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Power can lead to threats

Despite his countenance as a friendly and sometimes doddery old tinkerer, Ford was not above leveraging his influence within Westworld to assert his dominance. In a confrontation between himself and senior manager Theresa Cullen, his colleague expresses concerns as to Ford’s drastic changes to the park. He responds by using his mechanisms of control to show her how much power he actually wields. Finally, he threatens her, saying “don’t get in my way”.

The result of Ford’s superior levels of power means that it is simple for him to display his untouchability. Those like Ford, who are seemingly untouchable, are capable of using threats when their authority is challenged, because there is simply no way to contain said threat other than to appease them.

The business then faces a choice of pursuing actions that could lead to its collapse (or at least serious damage) or allow the individual to operate as they are and maintain the unstable status-quo. Neither option is satisfactory, but both are possibilities when power goes unchecked.

How can bosses ensure their companies don’t suffer the fate of Delos? It’s a question Smith answers on the next page.

Unchecked power fosters an atmosphere of mistrust

Ford’s extreme levels of unchecked power create a disconnected atmosphere within the company; one where a senior member of management is not trusted by his colleagues. The result is a significant amount of espionage-like activity within Delos.

Transparency in modern business serves great importance. It produces an environment of stronger communication, allows more dynamic ideas to flow and a clearer picture of the company’s current status to form. Without transparency, there is instability; another trait businesses want to avoid.

Creating stability through transparency is all about trust in the idea that information can and will flow freely. But in a situation where somebody has power like Ford’s, information cannot flow freely because there is a member of the team capable of taking inappropriate control whenever they decide.

Avoidance of unchecked power in business

Ford makes a poignant observation about how he managed to attain such power within Westworld, talking about how the representatives (and investors) of Delos were merely guests within a place where he was a god.

He was not wrong. Ford was careful to ensure he maintained control over the park. Blinded by the opportunity for financial success, other representatives allowed him to keep the power he demanded, which ultimately led to him having many of them killed, his park broken free of their grip and presumably the end of Delos as a brand.

For somebody to have such unchecked powers, there often have to be enablers. Our earlier example, Mayer was not a founder or significant part of Yahoo! until 2012, but given her previous experience, she was offered unbridled power that resulted in the company’s undoing. So how can we take the lessons from Westworld and ensure businesses in the real world don’t suffer the fate of Delos?

Don’t give any one person full control: Ford cannot be replaced because he has a level of control over the park that nobody else does, because he built it himself. Giving one person complete power over a product or service means they become indispensable. Knowledge of indispensability creates leverage which can be used against your business. Ensuring that no one person holds all the keys to a particular business asset is vital.

Never allow a director to maintain majority control: This idea doesn’t directly relate to Ford, but still holds relevance. Business control can often come down to majority shares, which means if one person controls 51 per cent or more, it becomes almost impossible to enforce change without their approval. If they are the problem you want to fight back against, you have little power to do so.

Walk away if you have to: In his confrontation with Cullen, Ford remarks that there were others before her. This is not the first time the company and Ford have come to blows. However, it seems they capitulated time and time again, allowing him to continue his behaviour. The longer they’ve carried on down this road, the more trapped they’ve become. Don’t facilitate such practices if you can avoid it. If there is no changing how somebody operates, walk away while you can.

Russell Smith is the founder of RS Chartered Accountants