The Upside of Power

To a surprising degree, the American culture tends to think of power from the downside. And so, power is seen as a negative, evil, coercive or repressive force that causes us to do things against our wishes. The effects of power are in negative terms. It excludes, represses, censors, masks and conceals.

But, in fact, power can also be seen as a very necessary thing, a productive and positive force in our world. Power can be creative. It took power to create our magnificent colleges and universities, to develop social nets, create our various park systems and build our great organizations.

On a business level, it takes power to change failing systems, create new work processes and develop new products. Yet…

many people will turn away, hold their nose, tell us that power is evil and refuse to get their hands dirty with power—ultimately to their own disadvantage.

Why is this? At the most basic business level, it’s a complete misunderstanding of power. It’s the belief that power always has the face of individuals taking over various situations. Lord Acton has ruled the roof on power for nearly 150 years. You know his famous statement: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He follows with a still more nonsensical claim: “Great men are almost always bad men.” This cultural prejudice flows in many individuals, families and organizations. It manifests itself in the fears surrounding organizational assholes and other difficult people.

What’s actually true about power? Typically, we think of power as instruments that powerful people use to prevent others—the powerless—from acting freely. Instead, power is everywhere and it comes from everywhere. It’s not an agency or merely a force within an individual. It pervades society. Power is always in constant flux, dispersed and pervasive. And it’s always here with us. To be more local, it pervades that innovation or cross-functional team project.

Most significantly, power resides in rules, norms, cultural practices—and knowledge. Of course, these hidden “methods” are always changing and always negotiable.

I chuckled a short time ago when Apple’s Tim Cook commented that he didn’t intend for his nephew to be on a social network. “I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow. I don’t want him on a social network.”

The power resides in the rules not in Tim Cook. Tim walks away from his nephew but as long as family members “talk,” rules continue to constrain. You might think that the power came and went in Tim. But Tim is not there most of the time: just the rule.

So, you’ve got a difficult team member? You can sabotage them with rules before they ever attempt to control things. You can start out a team meeting with, “Hey guys. This is a pretty tough project we’re working on. And there are a lot of brainy people on this team. Let’s make certain that the air time is spread around fairly equally.”

At the second meeting, you can recheck the rules, for example, on air time. “Hey guys, that was a great meeting last week. Air time was fairly balanced, but I noticed that couple of people didn’t take their share of airtime. Can we agree to work so that everyone gets a fair share of time.” The accepted rules are working to constrain.

Third meeting, you can begin by calling attention to the expertise of a nearly silent person. “Joe, I understand that you’re a specialist in. . . . Can we begin with you?” You’re changing the status for the good with talk and discourse. As time marches on, the team will begin to work better. Especially as a number of people begin commenting on team rules.

How do “rules” work?

Rules grow out of past political and organizational failures. They have a history and they can become the “truth.” But as you can see from the simple examples I’ve offered, rules order, limit, rank, constrain and liberate. Rules are social contracts, created or revised through political negotiations. They are tacit understandings or negotiated agreements that involve conflicts of interest and a strong need for predictability.

Having facilitated teams on numerous occasions, I often find that there are no rules in place. It’s a perfect situation for someone to take charge and chaos to result. These teams are like are like two NFL teams playing with no rules, or two four-lane highways crossing each other with no lights, signals, signs or guidance. Wreckage is the result. Just image two NFL teams playing with no rules. Teams that run well have to have rules to liberate and constrain. The new football head gear for junior high boys was created by talk politics because of personal wreckage. Rules were put in place.

My “rule” as a professional facilitator is, first, to check out rules, or create new team rules. Inevitably, we talk and talk about the rules until they begin to work.

What this means is that if a person becomes difficult in a team setting, the team is actually failing to reinforce rules. And as I’ve suggested in these simple forms of resistance, it’s quite possible to challenge power by focusing on boundaries and rules. And you don’t have to do it face-to-face. It can be done from a distance: after the meeting, before the meeting, in preparation for the meeting.

Difficult people are always socially constructed and thus permitted by their team to operate. So, when you focus on the boundaries rather than at the behavior of an actor (difficult person), you are effectively shaping the social limits of what is possible, even for the asshole. People are essentially under the control of language use.

In sum

Power is everywhere. Especially in knowledge—of rules and social constraints. No matter how low down in the hierarchy, people have the capacity to disrupt and change relations of power. When you shift your focus from individuals to accepted rules, problems are much more resolvable. Michael Foucault calls rules a “truth regime.” With that understanding, the “powerless” can have a destabilizing impact on a broken system at a miniscule level. Once more, people are essentially under the control of language use.

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