For more than three decades, I’ve been studying human and organizational behavior and sharing what I’ve learned through my work as a speaker, consultant, coach, and therapist. The most important thing I’ve come to know: there will always be more to learn and one of the best learning tools is dialog. So, after you’ve read this piece and those that follow please send me your thoughts, questions, and suggestions—whatever you’d like to share. I look forward to hearing from you and will respond as applicable.
I am excited to bring you this first in a series of articles exploring radical self-awareness. I use this term to describe self-understanding that incorporates awareness of how gender, race, and other identity aspects, including organizational title, shape our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, how we relate to others, and the expectations with which we approach the world. I’ll share concepts, tools, and recommendations that have helped my clients improve their relationships at work, home, and beyond.
Let’s start by examining power, something rarely mentioned despite the fact that it shapes every interpersonal relationship. The rules set by power are so much a part of our lives, like the rules of nature that compel us to breathe, drink, and eat, that we almost always comply without much thought. Here, however, the rules are man-made and following them doesn’t always serve our best interests. We are wise, therefore, to switch off auto-pilot, observe carefully, and practice conscious decision-making.
What is power?
Power is the ability to shape important aspects of our lives, including the ease with which we acquire essentials such as food, water, safety, and shelter. The amount of power we have determines the flexibility with which we can interact with other people, the world of work, and the natural world. The more power we hold, the more control we have over our time and energy. The less power we hold, the more our time and energy gets devoted to activities directed by other people.
Each of us begins life as a powerless infant. We gain power through gifts of nature and from the people who care for us. Many of these power-enhancing gifts develop over the course of years: our size, physical strength, and our ever-improving communication, self-control, and other social skills, to name a few. In our culture, and many others as well, we may draw the greatest share of our power from the amount of money we accumulate and the extent to which we enjoy positive connections with people who have even more than we do.
We gain power other ways as well, through education and training that leads to professional credentials and occupational skills, and through life experiences that key us in to how the world works—the power of “street smarts.”
Our gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status, the degree to which our bodies conform to prevailing standards of beauty, as well as other personal characteristics beyond our control, also contribute greatly to the amount of power we hold. We receive privileges based upon these and other aspects of ourselves, something we’ll discuss in much greater detail in subsequent articles.
Pay attention to power.
If you want to make sense of human relationships, start by paying attention to power. The power a person has and how they choose to use it reveals a great deal about how best to approach living and working with them. I can also tell you that nothing will better help you craft a fulfilling life and career than an honest effort to grasp your own way of understanding and using power.
Disregard power at your own risk. You’ll find yourself lacking an important lens for understanding people and relationships. I’ve known organizational leaders, HR professionals, and therapists who fall into this category. They often see only a communication problem where the essential issue has everything to do with power.
My phone is dead and I need to make a call. I speak only English and need to share information with someone who speaks only German (I’m on a train somewhere between Berlin and Frankfurt as I write these words). These are communication problems. The following workplace complaints represent something altogether different.
- “When I asked a question about the new process my boss got a glazed look in her eyes, folded her arms, and before I’d even finished what I had to say, she said, ‘Why don’t you just follow the guidelines I sent out yesterday?’”
- “I was facilitating training with an IT group when one of the participants went off! He stood up and started yelling at me—and he was a huge guy!” I backed up and let him rant until he kind of wore himself out. Then I told the group to take a break. As they were walking out of the room two people said to me, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just Stan—he’s brilliant and he flies off the handle about everything but he’s completely harmless.’”
- “I can’t get anywhere with this health insurance claim. Twice now I’ve called the insurance plan and then given them all the information they asked for from my care provider. I just called them for the third time and was told once again that I’d misunderstood them and they need more information. I can’t believe how much time this is taking.”
Do these incidents sound familiar? They’re examples of the breakdown in communication that results from the misuse of power. In the first case, the boss uses her organizational power as a formal leader to disregard her team member’s words. She would benefit from coaching that reminds her of the power she holds as a leader and how important it is to consistently use her power in ways that help team members feel listened to and respected. In the second example, Stan uses the power that comes with his physical size and his value as a “brilliant” technician to get away with intimidating outbursts. There are Stans in almost every organization: employees whose behavior goes unchecked because the benefits of their strong technical skills are thought to outweigh the negative effects of their tantrums. The costs to the organization in terms of turnover, stress, and reduced productivity are overlooked…until violence and/or legal complaints happen. The tragedy here is that leadership’s unwillingness to hold Stan accountable serves nobody’s interest, Stan included, and the right kind of response may well reform Stan’s negative behavior. In the third example, the health insurance representatives use their power to blame and further confuse their plan participant instead of using their power to help get this claim paid. Experience tells me that this misuse of power is extraordinarily common. It begs for an employer-based oversight mechanism ensuring that every claim, brought by an employee or family member, is processed correctly and within a reasonable time frame. Such a mechanism can level the power imbalance between plan participant and health insurer, encouraging the latter to behave more responsibly.
I mentioned earlier how important it is for us to know where we stand when it comes to power. I worked with the most senior leader in a corporate group who loved to display his sarcastic sense of humor. He would say things like, “Oh, I’m surprised to see that you’re working from work today” to an employee who periodically worked from home. Many within his organization understood that he was just having fun and meant no harm. On occasion, however, someone would get upset. I remember talking with him about how important it is to remember that when he speaks to members of his group he is speaking as everybody’s boss and not just as another human being.
Two visions of power:
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to exercise power. We can use power as the right to dominate (power over) or the responsibility to support shared success (power with). The age-old history of human beings choosing the former, more consistently than the latter, lies behind practically everything that’s wrong today. Power over is the rationale behind our efforts to dominate instead of respect the natural world, the cause of a myriad of environmental crises, including, of course, the growing climate crisis. Power over is what ordained two rigidly defined genders as a first step toward justifying domination of one by the other. (Power over within human systems requires us and them distinctions as a starting place.) Thus, power over is the birthplace of patriarchy and sexism. Every additional “us and them” oppression starts from a power over mindset. The list includes racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, classism, ableism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and stigmatizing people who live with certain illnesses (mental illnesses for example). They are all faces of the same evil and they are interconnected in important ways. We’ll discuss them at greater length later on.
Of course, the list above is far from exhaustive. Within work teams, the imposition of power over can be based upon differences that include:
- Those who have worked with the leader previously, perhaps at a different company, vs those who have not worked with the leader previously.
- Those who like linear project plans vs those who prefer less rigidly structured approaches.
- Those with a boisterous interpersonal style vs those who lean toward introversion.
Power with, the alternative to power over, sees power not as the opportunity to dominate and control but, instead, as the responsibility to bring about good things for everybody involved. It is the essence of great leadership, partnering, parenting, and friendship. Indeed, power with is the essence of love.
The table below contrasts key elements of power over and power with.
The right to dominate
Responsibility for shared success
Command and control
“I’m right and you’re wrong.”
“Hmm, I’ve never thought of it that way before.”
|One person’s gain requires another’s loss.
The following questions can help you use the power over/power with lens to gain insights at work.
- Which approach to power best characterizes my workplace?
- If my workplace has a power over hierarchy, is there any effort underway to shift toward power with? How can I contribute to such an effort?
- Where does my immediate supervisor’s behavior fit on this table? What about that person’s supervisor at the next level in the power structure?
- Where would those who report to me and/or my colleagues and coworkers place my behavior?
- How does my approach to power change when I’m under pressure?
- To what degree would those around me say I use power over related to privileges connected to my gender, race, sexual orientation and/or other aspects of my identity?
- In what ways am I working to understand and discard my use of power over related to these privileges?
The power over/power with distinction helps me make sense of relationships at work, within couples and family systems, and within larger systems as well. It can be eye-opening to evaluate community and world events using this framework. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, I use the power over/power with framework to gain insights regarding my own behavior. I hope you find this tool similarly helpful.
Stay with me through this article series. I’ll share what I’ve learned and what I’m learning about how to consistently strive for power with, a cornerstone of radical self-awareness. While I’ll focus mostly on the world of work, the content will also help with life beyond the workplace. If you’d like practical guidance on healthy ways to use power with in couple relationships and as a parent, see my books, Making Love, Playing Power: Men, Women and the Rewards of Intimate Justice and Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents.
As mentioned earlier, I invite your thoughts on this and subsequent articles and I’ll respond as applicable. Please contact me also if you’d like to discuss a speaking event, coaching, or consulting. I look forward to hearing from you.
Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, LMFT, SPHR, is an award-winning leader, speaker, consultant, author, and family therapist. He founded GreenGate Leadership® in 2017 after retiring from his role as Vice President, Health and Wellness, at Prudential, where he was responsible for behavioral health services. His team’s work led Prudential to receive the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Organizational Excellence Award. Ken was honored with the 2017 Leadership Award from the Employee Assistance Society of North America (EASNA). The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ New York City Metro Chapter named him 2016 Corporate Leader of the Year. Ken has authored four books and numerous other publications. He is a monthly NBC TV affiliate on-air guest and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine and other media. Learn more at www.greengateleadership.com