I remember well, when me and my technical Co-Lead did some work on values at the beginning of our working relationship. We got our results from a survey on personal values, and he was totally surprised to see that I ranked very low on valuing “power”. He had, up until that point, been convinced, that power was something I was after. Turns out, we have completely different – in many ways opposing – perspectives on the topic of power.
What made this moment so funny and ironic:
- It’s true that I don’t care about having power over others. What this survey was working with, was asking questions about classic “power over” situations. As somebody who is after power with and co-power with others, this ranks me low on desiring situations that are about deciding for others without their consent and without hearing their perspectives. I also don’t care about having exclusive access to resources.
- It is equally true, that I absolutely care about the outcome of my efforts. I want to be in a context that allows for me (and the people on my teams) to have a voice at the decision-making table. And I want to have access to resources, to go after the impact I want to see in the world. These are elements of having access to power that I am absolutely interested in. I am also thinking about sources of my inner power, and how to strengthen that muscle of self-authoring, self-discovery, emotional regulation, visioning, learning from failure, effectively collaborating, etc… All of these competencies influence how I show up, how intentional I can be, how much I care to learn, how resilient I am, how I lead etc… These all relate to my personal inner power. If that survey had asked about these aspects of power, I would have scored super high on valuing power. I absolutely care about a “power with” mindset, co-power, inner power and equal access to powerful roles. And I will use my power to influence the spaces around me towards more collaboration, more generosity, more willingness to fail and learn, more growth, more openness, more equality, more diversity, more inclusivity and also a more intentional relationship with the topic of power.
- What is funny here is: my co-lead found it comforting that the survey suggested I’m not after power. I am actually very much interested in power. Just not in the way he and that survey thought of it. I want to engage with power in a different way. One, that is not the classic way of thinking and acting in strongly hierarchical power over systems. Unfortunately, this is often the only way we think of power. It makes it sound like something male, it makes it sound like something only some can have (as if it was scarce), it makes it sound like something with strong negative connotations in relationship to my female identity (powerful women are not necessarily seen positively) and yet: Power is something we can all share, it is something that has to do with agency, with actively deciding, with smartly using resources, it is about creating solutions we want to see, and it is about having an impact. With all of this in mind, this low ranking of power in my profile is an ironic joke. And a reflection of how, whoever thought of putting that evaluation survey together, thought about power themselves. I do value power: I just want to exercise it in a completely different way.
The hidden and invisible faces of power
A lot of times we think only of power only as direct, formal and visible power. For example the power that comes with a specific role: The president, the CEO, the VP, the Team Leader, the king, the priest, the doctor, etc… But there is a lot more to this topic: Power is this often times a hidden or invisible concept, that is deeply ingrained and entangled with how we think about identity, how we unconsciously act towards members of certain groups, and also how we show up as individual contributors and leaders in a team.
If we actually hold all people as naturally creative, resourceful and whole, we must think of people as equally deserving of access to power and opportunities. And not unconsciously hold hidden opinions that certain people have more of a right to it. If we believe that every person is on a journey through life and embedded in a web of relationships that form our families, our circle of friends, our teams, our societies and we care about fairness, equality and well-being, we must pay attention to how we act around the concept of power. Do we act in a way that grants everyone a fair voice in decision making? Do we act in a way that grants equal access to opportunities and resources? Do we act in a way that allows people from all identities to trust the spaces we show up in to be inclusive and fair to them?
Our hidden beliefs about power are often influenced by stories told in the media, in the movies, or in the hierarchically organized circles around us (think of the military, our school system or corporate work spaces). And they may make us think and interact with the topic of power in ways that may go against our values. But should every voice always count the same?
The special role of expertise and decision-making powers
What about efficiency in decision making and our ability to successfully reach certain outcomes? Should an expert have more say in the decisions that are about their field of expertise? I would want a doctor trained in medicine make decisions about my healthcare, a trained pilot to fly the plane I’m sitting in, and an experienced software architect to have a say in feasibility estimates for my project. I would not want a tax advisor to decide on the approach for my complex heart surgery, a train conductor to fly my plane, and the HR intern come up with the feasibility estimates and prioritizations for my software engineering project. There is an element of expertise I want for certain decision-making powers.
And then there are some paradoxes around expertise and decision making: Should we let the new person in the team suggest ideas, the more experienced team-members have already tried? It might give them “equal voice” in suggesting solutions and might lead to a use of resources the rest of the team already understood will not likely succeed. And yet: maybe what did not work yesterday is exactly what is needed today, and that fresh perspective towards a topic is bringing about the innovation, that will make us successful today (despite the fact, that the same thing did not work two years ago). Access to decision making and how we deal with ideas is also about power. We should be clear on what sources of power are at play and which ones we want to foster or keep in check. For example: Should positional power rule? Or expert power?
A lot of the ways we show up together in teams, has to do with how we choose to think of who has power in a team. And how we then act based on these beliefs. There is something to be said about the positive aspects of giving people in formal leadership roles certain powers. Especially when they have expertise with strategy, centering people, your market context, leadership, budgeting, daring conversations, creating and aligning around vision, team building, etc… The right mix of soft and hard skills in a leader has great influence on the outcomes of their teams. And how they act based on their beliefs around the topic of power has a big influence on their team.
The relationship of power with the trust and culture we shape
How a leader deals with power (as in their ideas, reflections and behaviors on: who makes decisions, who controls resources, who and how they influence beliefs, biases and habits related to power) has direct consequences for the culture they will see in their teams. What we know is:
- People will not show up as engaged and as willing to take risks and fail, if they don’t trust their environment will let that be ok. This environment you co-create drives the trust level in a team, which is at the core of that magical psychological safety we all want for our teams. A trusting environment is also, what makes teams powerful innovators, and successful at creating the impact and mission they are after.
- Psychological safety is all about trust. That trust requires a belief by all members of the group that decisions are being taken in a fashion that is inclusive of all perspectives in the team. Which does not mean every decisions has to be 100% consensus. It does mean, that the voices who disagree, feel safe to state their point of view, do not face repercussions for doing so, and do not experience being systematically discriminated against.
- If people on the team are being treated differently with how much their voice counts based on who they are, they will not trust the space. This could show up in unequal speaking time, who gets to interrupt, whose ideas get looked at right away (e.g. those from the leader or expert in the team), whether it is ok to openly disagree with each other, how accepting and appreciative members of all identities are treated, etc… It requires quite a bit of awareness, reflection, willingness to sit in discomfort, fluency to navigate challenging conversations, feedback skills and emotional self-regulation to create a space that constantly improves these aspects of being with each other. A trusting and truly inclusive space requires that people have also reflected on who has and who should have what kind of power in their group. Making that explicit, agreed upon and holding each other accountable for this, is a building block of team success.
- Leaders wanting to create psychological safety, must create an environment where all team members can trust and agree that undesirable power dynamics are not violating equity, diversity and ultimately inclusivity. Their teams must make conscious choices on how they balance efficiency and inclusivity. The challenging part is: Power is built into our identities through completely unconscious beliefs and habits. This means that some people on the team might not even feel that their peers don’t trust the space, because they may come with enough privilege built into their identity, that they rarely or never experience not being listened to, not being heard, not being allowed to challenge others, not having resources, not having decision making powers etc… The more time you spend in privileged powerful roles, the less likely it is that you have full access to understand the experience of less powerful identities. The only thing that helps here is a lot of listening, a lot of consciousness about centering other people’s experiences (especially those who are different from our own), and an intentional willingness to do power differently.
How might we show up, if we do power differently?
For me this starts with an interconnected mindset. If I want to hold people as equally deserving of access to influence, decision making, opportunities and resources, I need to center their needs and aspirations as equally important to mine. It also helps to think of the people around me as in principle naturally creative, resourceful and whole. Each coming with their lives’ experience as a gift capable to positively influence the team around them.
It means being intentional about inclusivity. And aware of the intersectional lense team members bring to their experience of having or not having access to the more hidden or invisible aspects of power.
It means being aware and intentional about different sources of power and what these mean for the style of power we want to employ in the spaces we shape around us. Do we want to advance and uphold power over systems? Or do we want to lead with co-power and power with relationships? What kind of power sources and styles do we actively foster and role-model? How do we help team members step into their power?
It means a focus on aligning around a shared vision of the impact we want to create and how we want to be together, so we act in ways that are fair to all relevant stakeholders. That can e.g. also take into account somebody’s unique strengths and skills, consciously giving them more of a voice on decisions that relate to their expertise.
When I hold a formal leadership role, I can think of my team as a group of leaders (with leaders being defined as individuals who intend to positively influence the group so we can reach a shared goal). Most likely it is true, that individuals on the team are at different levels of experience in our shared leadership journey. Thinking of everyone on the team as on a shared leadership journey towards a common goal, takes away quite a bit of the pressure to think of myself as the only one responsible and accountable for outcomes in my team. It delegates more power and more accountability for our shared success into the group. It also means feeling less lonely and isolated than a leader who does not co-create with their teams this way.
As a leader in a formal leadership role, I also accept that my relationships with my direct reports hold special responsibilities. For example with regards to coaching them how to take the next steps in the career they want, even if that may mean they leave the team. Or that I am being asked to participate in budgeting, which may have direct consequences for the people on my team. Or that I am being asked to ensure the team collaborates with the rest of the organization towards shared goals and outcomes. Formal leadership roles will typically have specific powers. Navigating what this means for the relationships I have with people on the team, and the level of trust in the culture I create, is part of how I choose to show up as a leader – intentionally or not. Do I choose to serve my team, do people on the team experience having to “serve” me or do we all act in service to the larger impact we’d like to create together? How I do power in my team has a direct impact on my team’s culture, the trust and respect we have for each other, how engaged we feel, our innovation abilities and also how much joy we share. The more power my role formally holds, the more of an impact I have on equality, fairness and inclusiveness in my organizations culture. As a leader I see it is as my responsibility to have a conscious approach to how I think of power. My mindset on power will act as an enabler or roadblock for the culture I want to create in my teams.
Here is my invitation for you:
If you are a leader (which is true for everyone!): think about power, engage with it differently, stop acting in ways that unintentionally hold oppressive power structures in place and start acting in ways that intentionally center inclusive access to power.
Lucky for most of us: if we have at least one part of our identity that does not belong to the more powerful group, we can have direct experience with what it is like to feel powerless. This gives us a direct clue and prompt to think about ways in which we might want to act differently. Inclusive leadership coupled with co-power actually makes much stronger teams, especially when the topic of power has been reflected upon in their spaces. Not so lucky for many of us: people who are privileged in most dimensions are over-represented in positions of power. It is up to all of us to shape this differently.
If you currently have power: use it wisely, I hope you’ll advance equality and inclusion and want to center power-with approaches! There is actually a lot more joy, support, generosity, collaboration and camaraderie in leading that way.
If you have always thought of power as something you don’t want: maybe you simply looked at an unhelpful style of exercising power. Or maybe you are unconsciously holding beliefs that you are not permitted to have power. If a part of your identity is being female, BIPOC, LGTBQIA+, neurodiverse, young or old, non-academic, not so rich: I want to see more of you in power. I want to see you at the table making decisions. I want you to have fair access to resources. All of this is about power. We absolutely deserve to have equal access to it,
We can speak about and exercise power in ways that builds trusting, equal and inclusive relationships. We can do power differently and actually embrace it as something super positive. I no longer am shy about stating that I actually like power: I like power with systems. I like having an equal voice in making decisions that influence my life. I like having resources to live the life I want to live, and to create the impact I’d like to see in the world: A more inclusive, more equal, more diverse and more loving world. There is more than enough of that kind of power, there is no scarcity around it, and we can all share it.
Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash
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