Who Has the Power and What Are They Doing With It?
Using power over others relies on force, obedience, or fear to control those who have less authority. But does it have to be that way? Does power have to be associated with aggression and meanness and domination? Absolutely not.
I used to teach a social justice curriculum to middle school Humanities students – history, literature, current events, etc. Pedagogically, I used what is known as a throughline to guide every project I designed, lesson I taught, discussion I led, and assessment or test I gave. A throughline is a foundational question or statement that guides all of our thinking about any topic. My throughline?
Who has the power and what are they doing with it?
This question was applicable and appropriate for everything. Ancient China? The feudal lords had the power and they used it to keep nearly a billion people in serfdom. John Steinbeck's The Pearl? The pearl buyers had the power and they used it to take advantage of Kino, the poor ignorant fisherman who had found the pearl of the world. Classroom dynamics? The popular kids had the power and they used it to "other" the kids who didn't fit into their clique.
The examples are endless because every single human relationship has a power dynamic – from ancient history to five minutes ago. There are literally no exceptions. If we are interested in creating inclusive cultures of belonging (which of course we are), the question to ask, then, is:
Who has the power and what are they doing with it?
You may have noticed that all my examples of power in the above paragraph followed a similar pattern, which was that the entity in power used their power to subjugate or take advantage of the entity with less power. This phenomenon is known as "power over" – using one's positional, political, or social authority or status to create or perpetuate inequity because. . .well, because they can. Power definitely corrupts.
Using power over others relies on force, obedience, or fear to control those who have less authority. Words such as dominate, dismiss, condescend, mistreat, marginalize, shame, discredit, embarrass, and disgrace can all be associated with power over.
But does it have to be that way? Does power have to be associated with aggression and meanness and domination? Absolutely not.
There's another way – it's called "power with," and is the opposite approach to power over. Power with emphasizes collaboration, respect, opportunity, trust, empowerment, co-creation, inclusion, and other similar concepts. It is very intentional about bringing those with less power – less social status, experience, authority – into the conversation and decision making process.
This makes a huge difference. What if the ancient Chinese feudal lords had allowed the serfs to work toward owning the land they farmed and keep the majority of their profits? What if the pearl buyers had respected Kino and paid him what his pearl was worth? What if the cool kids consciously used their social capital to bring the less popular kids into their orbit?
The answer to all these questions: We would have stronger, more equitable communities where everyone felt safe, validated, and like they belong.
Using Your Power for Good
There are natural hierarchical power dynamics everywhere – parent/child, coach/athlete, teacher/student, and, most relevant to this space, supervisor/direct report. And, there are power dynamics between people who are more or less on the same level – siblings, friends, romantic partners, colleagues. Power dynamics in an organization play a foundational role in shaping the company culture. And it is the leaders who set the tone.
Leaders who persist with the authoritarian, top-down power over approach rely on threats, rewards, and punishments to get people to follow their lead. But who wants that? Anyone can tell other people what to do. But that's not leadership; that's just being a boss. And an uninspiring resentment-breeding boss at that.
Using the power with approach to leadership, on the other hand, inspires others to be more engaged and productive. When people feel like they are supported and encouraged to contribute, they will do better work. They are more efficient, creative, and innovative – all the results that we want to see from leadership. When people are empowered, the entire organization reaps the benefits of their collective wisdom.
Why do people so often resort to power over leadership, especially in difficult situations? Emotional states such as fear, stress, and uncertainty play a role. And, I suspect that often the power over style of leadership is the result of not considering all the possibilities and therefore embracing a limited perspective on what's possible.
How we treat people is always a choice. We can choose to be aggressive and condescending, or we can choose to be supportive and uplifting. It is up to us. When we are confident and aware of our situation – our positional authority and social capital – we can access the "power within" us to make the best decision to benefit all the people with whom we come in contact.
And this applies to everyone, not just people in official leadership positions. Whether you are the CEO of a big company or it's your first day on your first job, we all must be examining the affect our actions and words have on others. How can each of us step into our authentic power that uplifts and celebrates the vast dynamism of the human condition?
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