Friday, May 11, 2012

Power: the Over/Under Dynamic

A close friend of mine recently participated in two days of meetings focused on power dynamics in her residential community. As someone who is active in leadership roles in that group she spent a portion of the two days on the hot seat listening to people complain that she has misused her power at their expense.

While this is a complex dynamic, I want to focus today on one part of it: my friend was told that she's condescending to those with less power and that she has used that as a tactic to suppress the weak. I want to zero in on this because, in one variation or another, I think it's common and damn hard to deal with.

As you might imagine, this criticism was not easy to hear, and she struggled when presented with this critical feedback (which was new to her). While it was hard enough hearing that her actions had landed poorly, she was gut shot by the accusation that this was being viewed as a deliberate strategy.

Listening to her anguish inspired me to write this essay. First I want to establish some ground work.

Premise #1: "Power" (in its social sense) is the ability to get others to agree with something, or to do something. I define "abuse of power "as the perception that power is being used for the benefit of some and at the expense of others. This is in contrast with using power for the benefit of all, which people appreciate (mostly).

Premise #2: The mainstream culture is demonstrably not cooperative. The vast majority of us were raised and acculturated in a society steeped in competition, hierarchy, and adversarial dynamics—and I'm not even talking about manipulation, duplicity, and outright lying! This reality is a key reason why people are motivated to create intentional communities—to build an alternative culture based on cooperation instead of competition.

As such, most of us come into cooperative experiences with damage from prior experiences (whether those experiences were ostensibly cooperative or not) that has taught us to be suspicious of people in leadership. It's important to appreciate that most of us have learned this lesson the hard way, from direct painful experiences. While that doesn't necessarily mean that future leaders will misuse power, it's rational to have learned caution (which I'm distinguishing from a paranoid tendency to automatically brand every leader with the tarry brush of tyranny).

The operative principle here is the famous quote by Lord Acton from the 19th Century: 

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Premise #3: If you ask the members of a cooperative group to sort themselves into those More Powerful and those Less Powerful, it is overwhelmingly common for there to be a small number of people who will self-identify publicly as More Powerful, and a much larger segment who identify as Less Powerful.

One of the more enlightening (and occasionally amusing) exercises you can do at this point is to ask folks whether they agree with how people have sorted themselves, and observe people urging some of those who self-identified with the Less Powerful majority to reassign their position. You can also watch pairs argue with one another over who is less powerful, as if that were the more desirable label. (I have a friend in Ohio who refers to this, with a twinkle in his eye, as "the race to the bottom.")

In essence, most people in cooperative groups are uncomfortable with their power. Not so much because they think they have poor judgment (fear of making a mistake) as because they're afraid that donning the blouse of power will draw arrows from the bows of the disaffected.

Premise #4: In most cooperative groups there is a significant segment of folks who do not identify with wanting leadership roles (even if they serve in that capacity on occasion, they are uncomfortable with it, or at least make widely known that they didn't seek the job). For the most part this segment maps well onto to those who identify as Less Powerful.

It is useful to further partition this segment into two components: those who prefer to leave leadership to others; and those who prefer that leadership be rotated among everyone, in the name of fairness and as a guard against entrenchment.

This sorting is important, because the former will tend to accept that they have opted out and not make waves. The latter however, tend to be vocal when things don't flow their way, and that's where I want to shine the spotlight today. For the remainder of this essay, I'll be referring to this active, second component when referring to the Less Powerful.

While it's an interesting question why these attitudes about leadership persist and what can be done to encourage everyone to be more comfortable with leadership, for this essay I want to simply accept that this occurs and examine what it leads to.

• • •
Taken all together, you can expect there to be a recurring dynamic among cooperative groups where the More Powerful will tend to draw criticism from the Less Powerful about how they're using their power.

Returning to the specific incident with my friend (that I related in the opening paragraphs), the interesting case is when a More Powerful person disagrees with a Less Powerful person. How can that proceed without the Less Powerful person pulling the power abuse card?

—From the Perspective of the More Powerful Person
If you think the group is better served by going in a different direction, you feel obliged to speak up and make your case. As someone who has some degree of comfort with the leadership role, you know that you have an obligation to listen carefully to opposing views and that you need to try to weave a path forward that acknowledges the tensions points encountered along the way. For you, it is automatic that you'll need to take minority views into account.

—From the Perspective of the Less Powerful Person
When you encounter a More Powerful person disagreeing with you, there's a natural tendency for Premise #2 to be actuated. The dynamic starts to smell like wolfish power entrenchment, cleverly disguised in the woolen raiment of "what's best for the group."  It's the same old shit.

Now we're sitting in the fire. In the tension that ensues, how can individuals (or the group, for that matter) sort out: a) whether the More Powerful person is blind to the ways in which they've been missing the interests of a caring minority (that is, that there is a basis for the claim that they're culpable of misusing power); or b) whether the Less Powerful are projecting power abuse onto others without discernment (because it's easier on the ego than accepting that your viewpoint is simply not persuasive)? 

While this would be a tough examination all by itself, the likelihood of being able to explore this with clarity and compassion is complicated to the point of near impossibility when you factor in how triggering the dynamic is likely to be. You can take it to the bank that the More Powerful will not welcome the observation that they are blind to how cleanly they are using power, and the Less Powerful will not embrace calmly the suggestion that they are projecting. In short, this is predictably a highly volatile dynamic.

When there's tension in the group and work needs to be done to bridge differences, it's the leaders (the More Powerful) who are expected to take the initiative in inviting dialog—that's one of the reasons they're leaders; because they understand the need for this role and can rise to the occasion.

One of the reasons that the Less Powerful don't have more influence (power) is because they may not understand or have not mastered the skill of reaching out to those with whom they are in disagreement. 

Now imagine how it unfolds once you get into a pattern of being a More Powerful person who is hearing a familiar claim that you have misused your power when in substantive disagreement with someone who is Less Powerful.

It is difficult to be 100% devoid of stress or resentment when you're expected to take the lead in reaching out to the Less Powerful in the face of being unfairly (from your perspective) accused of abusing power. It's almost certain that some of those feelings will leak into the conversation—perhaps coming across as condescension.

[When I have a history of tension with someone, I'm on guard when I'm around that person and change my normal boisterous demeanor to adopt an attitude that is more cautious and measured. The other person picks up on that and interprets it as my being closed to them. It's not hard to see how this leads to a downward spiral that is the very devil to reverse—all without either party thinking that that they're encouraging negative thinking!]

For my money, the litmus test in this dynamic is whether each party is as interested in hearing, as they are in being heard. Whenever I encounter a stuck dynamic (where each party is accusing the other of behaving poorly) I look to see who, if anyone, has demonstrated care in acknowledging what the other is saying.

All too often, I see the Less Powerful asserting their right to be taken into account (which is a real thing), while making no effort to acknowledge their concomitant responsibility to listen to the viewpoints of others (the very thing they are accusing the More Powerful of not doing). Accustomed to the More Powerful taking the initiative around dialoging about tensions, they cry foul and then sit back and await the More Powerful coming to them. Meanwhile, the More Powerful grind their teeth over the unfairness of being harpooned and then expected to call upon the harpooner with hat in hand. Nice mess, eh?

My friend is wrestling with the challenge of finding the energy needed to attempt to clear the air, by reaching her hand out cleanly—by which I mean, without condescension—to those who have just bitten it. I assure you, it ain't easy, and it isn't clear to me that the Less Powerful have a clue what they're demanding.


Anutosh said...

Interesting discussion.
Our community works with a governance system called sociocracy, (see eg
Decisions are made by consent (defined as: nobody has an paramount argued objection). Als long as the aim is clear, no decisions can be made when someone has an objection. Important concepts hereby are that most decissions can be made with a time constraint (eg. let's try it for 2 months), and there is some "wiggle" room (tolerance of being comfortable with a decision even if it is not my preference - in my opinion a measure of maturity).
With this system, I am never confronted with the power issue, in fact, the system encourages empowerment of people (which must be learned)

Puck The Bard said...

I am fairly new to the whole Intentional Community, and am learning more then I ever thought I would about it. I stummbled across Laird while connecting with various communities around the country and have been blessed that I did. I really loved this blog as it touches on a topic I am about to embark on in the very near future. I thank you for your frankness and keen insite that I can just turn to as I am shaping my future. peace to Laird , may we one day sit and share some mead and good times!