Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Getting Comfortable with Authority in Cooperative Groups

In the context of group dynamics, I define power as the ability to get others to do something or to agree with you. In essence, it's influence. It can come from good or dubious sources, but it necessarily involves the cooperation of others. You don't have power in a vacuum, nor can you "empower" others (you can't give someone influence).

That said, you can (and arguably should) develop the leadership capacities of others so that they can grow into having more influence (by virtue of their having demonstrated that they know what they're talking about, that they'll do what they say they'll do, and that they take into account the views of others). In cooperative groups it makes total sense to invest in developing the leadership capacity of your members.

Today I want to focus mainly on the relationship of power to authority, which is when the group has explicitly delegated to someone (or some group) the ability to act or speak on behalf of the whole. [In this essay I'll use the terms subgroup, committee, and manager interchangeably.]

It's an important feature of effective delegation (which cooperative groups tend to struggle with) that groups make a clean handoff in this regard, which entails spelling out clearly (in writing, please) what the subgroup can decide on their own and when it needs to consult. When the handoff is fuzzy, there are problems. If the subgroup decides to be proactive (either because it believes its mandate can be legitimately interpreted to include the action, or because it cynically believe it's simpler to garner forgiveness than permission) there is the risk of push back from people who feel that authority was exceeded and power misused—especially when they don't like the decision.

Going the other, the subgroup may become timid in the face of ambiguity, risking irritating the plenary when it comes back repeatedly for permission in a CYA maneuver aimed principally at forestalling criticism, rather than emphasizing problem solving or efficiency.

Authority can be specific ("Examine the options within x price range and select the one that is expected to last the longest and have the least deleterious environmental impact.") or general ("Make decisions about managing the commonly owned physical elements of the community such that you are doing your best to balance three factors: a) benign ecological impact; b) least cost; and c) positive aesthetic value."). Sometimes subgroups have no authority to decide; they are only asked to propose.

In cooperative groups, authority resides with the plenary. However, the plenary is free to delegate as much authority as makes sense to subgroups or managers. The nuance is knowing where to draw the line. As a long-time observer of cooperative groups, I favor stretching to delegate to committees, either ad hoc or standing, as much authority as the group can stand (so that plenaries don't get bogged down in the minutia of what color to paint the Common House bathroom), but this only works well when the mandates are clear and complete. [See my blog of Feb 8, 2010, Managing Management, for a mandate checklist.]

I suspect that the reason cooperative groups tend to have trouble with delegating authority is that they suffer from a mistaken notion that because power ultimately rests with the whole (which is true), that the whole needs to decide everything (shoot me now). Concomitantly, they are cautious about trusting that members will wield power well, and are thus reluctant to give managers a long leash, or to authorize subgroups to act, excepting under very limited and well-defined circumstances.

Groups can get this wrong in two ways: 

a)  By being parsimonious in delegating authority, everything has to be run through the plenary and that gets exhausting (especially when it gets down to details that most members don't care about, and they feel trapped in conversations they'd rather skip).

b)  By distributing authority so widely that nothing of consequence happens in the plenary. While this is less common than a), I've seen it happen that the plenary gets weak (why bother to come?) and the committees become fiefdoms run by conveners. Not good.

The trick is finding the sweet spot in the middle, which requires being clear what plenaries are for and then being diligent about using them only for those things. [See my blog of Jan 25, 2008, Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas, for details about that.]

In conclusion, I want to briefly narrow the focus to a subtopic dear to my heart: the way that facilitator's are authorized to run meetings. Done properly, the facilitator should be allowed to direct the focus of the group in moments of confusion, but it is an abuse of power to push the group against its will, or to tell the group what action it should take in response to an issue. The facilitator can suggest—based on what they've heard—but they should not try to sell.

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