Sunday, July 10, 2016

Healthy Uses of Power and Authority

If power is the ability to get others to do something, or to agree to something, how does the equation  change if one of the two people has authority the other doesn't have?
Let's say Sandy has been authorized to make decisions about the group's anniversary party. Taylor is also a member of the group and has ideas about a new interactive game that might increase participation (which has been waning in recent years). Now let's suppose that Sandy does not share Taylor's excitement about the new game because it will take too long, making dinner start too late for parents with young kids.

Sandy appreciates that Taylor is trying to enhance participation, but Sandy is also sensitive to complaints from the parents of young kids about how few group activities are designed to work well for their family schedules. What to do? Let's suppose Taylor is a new member to the group and has been encouraged to get involved. This offering of the new game at anniversary is Taylor's first attempt to do something for the group and Taylor is baffled by Sandy's cool reception. There is a risk that if this exchange goes poorly that Taylor will back off and become cynical about the group's supposed commitment to inclusivity.

To be clear, Sandy has the authority make the call without getting buy-in from Taylor. Still, Sandy wants to be careful about proceeding in a way that is not disrespectful to the well-intended newcomer. Yet neither does Sandy want to get bogged down negotiating with Taylor over an idea that's a non-starter. After all, what's the point of having the authority to make the call unless you exercise it?

At what point is Sandy being arbitrary? At what point is Sandy being held hostage to unreasonable expectations?

By virtue of delegated authority, Sandy is not obliged to get approval from Taylor. Is it enough that Sandy makes a good faith effort to hear Taylor and explain why there will be no new games played at anniversary? What level of response from Sandy constitutes due diligence? 

These are nuanced questions, and I don't believe there is one right answer. That said, it's worthwhile to dwell here a bit to describe the lay of the land and to offer some suggestions about how to proceed.

o  I believe the hardest part of this dynamic is that people do not tend to respond openly to others raising questions about how cleanly they've used power. Thus, the biggest challenge tends to be creating a culture in which these uncertainties can be explored without anyone going ballistic.

o  One thing that will help is having a conversation about what's wanted in the situation I've described with Sandy and Taylor. What can Taylor expect in the way of consideration and an explanation from Sandy? What latitude does Sandy have to go in another direction if unpersuaded by Sandy's suggestion?

o  It might be interesting to ask other members of the group who have had experience filling roles of authority for the group what they would like the standard of responsiveness to be.

o  Caution: One known pitfall here is sloppy delegation. Just imagine how much more complicated it can get when the hand-off to the person(s) in authority has not been well defined. Ugh. When people have to guess about the limits of authority, can misunderstandings be far behind?  

o  There's a difference between being unhappy with how someone used their authority (perhaps you feel they exceeded their mandate) and being displeased with their judgment (even though they had the right). Be sure not to conflate the two. The former is a process complaint; the latter is a disagreement of substance.

While the advice above does not constitute foolproof protection against falling into the pit, it'll help.

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