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On Power & Transparency

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by power in the last few years. Think about it: power is woven through every experience we have with others: in relationships, interactions, and organizations, but we almost never acknowledge it. Saying power is invisible doesn’t quite get at its intangible quality.  I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s unseen, because so frequently we’re not even looking for it.

This week, in my capacity as a Board Member for the Toronto Organizational Development Network, I was fortunate to welcome Elizabeth Hunt to facilitate a group exploration of wellness and power. I reached out to Elizabeth last year when I came across two events she was involved in organizing in her home city of Montreal related to complexity and power (two topics that have been part of my own exploration of workplace sexual harassment over the last year).

Elizabeth agreed to join us at our last live event before the Summer, and led a highly participatory workshop linking power to the TODN’s seasonal theme: “Elevating Workplace Wellness Through OD”.

Elizabeth shared a power framework with us, but cautioned that it was just a lens to look through, not a definitive set of categories. The framework describes four different ways power manifests in decision-making:

  1. Power Over (directive, unilateral decisions, control of resources; boss/employee)
  2. Power For (advocating, decisions on behalf, managing resources)
  3. Power With (collaborating/cooperating, shared decisions, negotiating resources)
  4. Power Among (infinite, expansive, responsive decision-making, generates resources)

Power Among is a concept developed by Tuesday Ryan-Hart. Elizabeth shared that it differs from the other quadrants in that it does not rest on a transactional view of power (e.g. it’s not zero sum, where a finite amount of power must be divided between two or more people). Instead, its’ use generates more power, perhaps without limit. The small example Elizabeth shared really resonated for me: she told us about publishing a blog post and hearing from someone who’d read it and been inspired and energized to publish a short story. That empowerment from watching someone else take a risk, however small, is real and doesn’t result in the reduction of a finite pool of power.


A Power Mystery

In 2017 I was fortunate to be part of the inaugural cohort in Leadwise Academy’s Self-Management Intensive, facilitated by the wonderful Susan Basterfield of Enspiral. This highly experiential course challenged me in several ways, one of which was the way it brought me face-to-face with how limited my personal vocabulary for talking about power was.

Subsequently, I began to notice power in my surroundings and my relationships. And once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it. Of particular curiosity to me was how often leaders espoused a desire to share decision making and minimize hierarchy, but seemed either unaware of, or uncomfortable with acknowledging, their own power in relation to others in the organization. I was really puzzled about this. Why say you want to share decision making but then make most of the decisions? Why eschew formal hierarchy, while ignoring the clear existence of an informal hierarchy that still places you at the top?

The following explanations occurred to me:

  1. These leaders were performing some kind of “cool boss” role for external approval (“I’m not a regular boss, I’m a cool boss”) but when things got real they couldn’t help but grab for the wheel; or
  2. These leaders meant what they said, but were either honestly unaware (or deluding themselves) about the power dynamics at work related to their position and privilege; or
  3. These leaders were Machiavellian and were using a lack of formal hierarchy to deflect accountability for decision making, and create an environment in which people were motivated to overwork and engage in political machinations due to ongoing insecurity, ambiguity, and competition for influence.


(If you’re new here, yes, I am a cynical over-thinker.)

My observations in real life mostly led me to conclude that the stated desire to share authority was authentically felt, so I cautiously set option #3 aside, despite the fact the outcome of these situations often was an increase in internal politics and performative overwork. But I was still perplexed. Was this leader behaviour the performance of some kind of idealized “cool leader” role, or were leaders blind to their own power?

Something Elizabeth said this week shed additional light on this question.

Power and Transparency

A key point from Elizabeth was that power is relational and exercised. That is, power exists between people and manifests when it is used. Having influence describes the power one has in relation to others. One can’t have influence alone on a desert island. Likewise, having resources (like money or information) that you never use and that others aren’t aware of  (like money hidden under a mattress) doesn’t confer power until it is exercised (by using it, or making others aware of your potential to use it).

So we can say we want to share power, but power isn’t truly distributed until others can actually exercise it.

She also described the idea that those with power may want to share power (moving to a power with or power among relationship) but if they haven’t examined their own power and thoroughly investigated their personal (potentially subconscious) need to maintain control, they will likely slip back into Power Over, particularly if aspects of the organization (like communication and decision making) have consciously or unconsciously been structured with that underlying orientation in mind.

Her point? That any real and sustainable shift of power first requires mapping where power currently resides, and owning (not denying) that power, before it can be distributed.

This reaffirms the need for all of us, but especially leaders, to become more power-literate and conversant.

My thanks to Elizabeth Hunt, who has given me lots to think about!

Recommended Reading (and Other Stuff)

The Calgary Central Library

Literally, recommended reading. I was at the gorgeous new library in Calgary this week to speak at DisruptHRYYC. It was a ton of fun, and the first time I’ve been back to Calgary in 20 years, where I (barely) finished my last year of high school. The event was billed as a Canadian “All Stars” edition, and my fellow speakers brought their A game. I’ll post links to my favorite talks when they’re available.

Mid-Career Crisis?

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately with people about re-imagining one’s career and/or professional identity at mid-life. In part this is because I turn 40 next month, but I think it’s also because a lot of people are, or have, grappled with this question. I put a call out on Twitter and was floored with the awesome conversation it sparked. I plan to write about it in the coming weeks, so if you have thoughts or experiences to share send me a tweet or an email.

Let’s Talk About How to End Sexual Violence – Anita Hill, The New York Times

We are so fortunate to have Prof. Anita Hill’s wise voice to weigh in on this topic. She takes what could have been a salacious political story (about Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s alleged shitty non-apology to her for his role in the Thomas Clarence Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the 90s) and turned it into a reasoned and convincing call for renewed action against sexual violence.

“Despite the grim reality, I remain hopeful, knowing how far we’ve come. If we acknowledge the severity of the problem and demand processes in which all sexual harassment and assault survivors are heard and not dismissed or punished for coming forward, our leaders will step up.

Survivors and their supporters need acknowledgment and justice. Words of condolence can never substitute for action aimed at ending the harm. There are measures that would show that our government is ready to respond to survivors.

Sexual violence is a national crisis that requires a national solution. We miss that point if we end the discussion at whether I should forgive Mr. Biden. This crisis calls for all leaders to step up and say: “The healing from sexual violence must begin now. I will take up that challenge.”

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

One Comment Post a comment
  1. If you’re curious to continue exploring the arc around power, you may enjoy checking this out:

    May 16, 2019

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