Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 2: You and a New Group

Today I am continuing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:

Part 1: Yourself

Part 2: You and a New Group
Part 3:  You and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Operating Cooperatively

Part 4: You and an Established Group that is Committed to Operating Cooperatively

One the principal differences between competitive culture and cooperative culture is how we intend to work with power (which, unfortunately, is often quite different than how we actually work with power, but bear with me). So let's take a moment to explore intentions. In competitive culture one earns power through having ideas that are brighter than those of others; through being demonstrably superior at presenting one's ideas persuasively; through being better at promoting one's ideas; through being better at securing allies for one's ideas.

In cooperative culture we want power (influence) to be used for the benefit of all—not for the benefit of some and at the expense of others. In competitive culture the model is that the best idea will emerge as the winner (survivor) of a fair fight (vigorous debate). We don't need to worry so much about "the benefit of all" because that will be an automatic byproduct of the free market, with everyone struggling to prevail… at least that's the theory.

We are increasingly questioning the competitive model for a number of reasons:
—the playing field is never level (without safeguards to protect rights, they are curtailed and subverted for the benefit of those in power, preserving the status quo)
—those in power have tremendous advantages over those with less (the richer get richer)
—the rules are written by those in power, institutionalizing their advantages (do you think it's just a coincidence that laws are written by lawyers and lawyers are very powerful and rich in mainstream culture?)
—in reality, everyone does not have equal access to the microphone, much is decided in smoke-filled back rooms; ideas originating from people out of power are not as seriously considered as ideas coming from those in power.

Unfortunately, being clear that we want something different (in this case, cooperative culture) doesn't mean we know how to act cooperatively. Especially when the stakes are high and there's disagreement. In today's essay I want to focus on the situation where you are a serious shopper for getting involved in a group that's ostensibly committed to operating cooperatively and you're trying to decide if this is the group for you.

Here is a set of questions, the answers to which should help you sort out whether this is a good group for you. There are a number of lenses that it may be fruitful to consider this through:
o  How well does the group's core values match yours?
o  How well does the group's actions align with its values (do they walk their talk)?
o  Do you like the people, are you energetically drawn to their ED, their Board, and key staff? 
o  Can you see yourself volunteering for this group, joining their Board, or becoming a donor?
o  How does the group welcome new people (is there room at the table for new blood or is there an in-group and an out-group?)

But this series is about power, so I want to set aside the above (perhaps for future essays) and drill down on that particular lens for assessing a new group.

Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about how it wants power to be used in the group (and how it doesn't want it to be used)?

Can the group talk openly about power and how it is distributed in the group? (Hint: if members tell you not to worry; power is evenly distributed among members, you should be very afraid.)

Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about what qualities it wants in people who fill leadership positions in the group? (Note the difference between this question and "do you want leaders?") What support, if any, do you need from others to be willing to fill a leadership role in the group? Has it discussed what commitment it has to developing those qualities in its members? How will it celebrate and appreciate good leadership and the healthy use of power?

If this last question caught your attention (it should) I suggest you consider three ways you might go about that:
o  Trainingo  Mentoring
o  A commitment to filling leadership roles with people who are good enough, rather than always reaching for the best qualified, with the explicit goal of increasing the capacity of the group down the road without unduly straining your commitment to quality work now.
 Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about what it wants its culture to be?
Points to consider:
—how is information shared—are meetings open to all
—are minutes good enough that people who missed the meeting can tell what was said
—how are slots filled (both manager positions and committee seats)
—do you have clear mandates for committees and managers, laying out their authority
—how welcoming is the group to new energy

Note: Weak process (by which I mean inconsistent and incomplete minutes, inability to work constructively with emotions, sloppy mandates, and their ilk) favors the status quo—whatever power distribution is currently in place.

Has the group had an explicit conversation about the power peculiar to founders and how you intend to handle that with firmness, sensitivity, and compassion?

Has the group discussed how it will work constructively with the range of abilities among members to express themselves well orally and in writing when representing the group? (This came up poignantly for me at Sandhill once, when a long-term member told me that it mattered more to her that several voices be represented in the text of the community's website than that the prose was clear and well-written. In essence, she was concerned that I had too much power by virtue of my being a practiced writer and this was her initiative to see that it was more widely distributed—even if the quality of the text reflected poorly on the group. She not only didn't want me drafting text; she didn't want me editing hers.)

To what extent is the group able to support the expression of critical comments about how a member uses their power? The toughest moment comes when one member thinks another has used their power to benefit some at the expense of others and that assessment is not shared by the person being criticized. It can be incendiary. You'll be dealing with both the limits of individual members to handle criticism that's likely to land pretty close to the bone, and the ability of the group to be able to create a container sufficiently strong and compassionate to sustain a constructive atmosphere.

To be fair, I don't recall ever having encountered a group that's had all these conversations, but I can dream. Meanwhile, I derive hope from knowing what they are, and with any luck I've given readers something powerful to look for (so to speak).

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