Towards healthy power dynamics at work [Bartlett]

These are 2D representations of the same 3D shape. Left: “friendly circle” (top); Right: “evil triangle” (side).

“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. (…)

“As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.


— Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, 1970

A colleague recently reminded me of the “bounded specialization” piece I wrote about a year and a half ago. It was written during the short break that I’ve taken in between AltSchool and Grammarly in a cabin at the Gualala hills overlooking the Pacific ocean. It is one of my pieces of writing that I am still most proud of. Serendipitously, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about hierarchies lately. From “The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy”, through “Why hierarchies thrive”, to “In praise of hierarchy”. But none was as elegant and compelling as Richard D. Bartlett’s 2-part series on hierarchy and power dynamics: 

Hierarchy is not the problem (Part 1)

11 Practical steps towards healthy power dynamics at work (Part 2)

He starts by diffusing some of the loaded reactions that hierarchy tends to trigger, reminding us that that the term itself is just a useful metaphor to efficiently explain that this is contained by that:

If you tell me you hate fruit, I know not to offer you an apple. It would be impossible to make sense of the world without these hierarchical relationships.

Bartlett argues that the obsession with “hierarchy vs. flatness” is an unhelpful distraction from the issue that really matters, which is power dynamics. He builds on Mary Parker Follett’s distinctions to define 3 types of power dynamics: 

  • Power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • Power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • Power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

With those in mind, he defines the approach to power dynamics that we actually strive for and often hides behind the hierarchy-related language:

Maximize power-from-within, make power-with transparent, and minimize power-over

Note the directional and relative (as opposed to absolute) language that’s used to describe this aspiration. The more descriptive articulation of that aspiration is also worth including here: 

  • Maximize power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
  • Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
  • Minimize power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behavior are developed with a collective mandate.

In part 2, Barlett outlines specific behaviors and practices in support of this aspiration, which I’ll only include here in their headline form: 

Maximize power-from-within

  • Encourage your peers
  • Discourage “permission-seeking” 
  • Create practice spaces
  • Find your mentors
  • Rotate roles

Make power-with transparent

  • Break the power taboo
  • Name the level of engagements
  • Limited decision mandates

Minimize power-over

  • Consent-based decision-making
  • Celebrate dissent
  • Share the ownership

This framing strongly resonates with me and the mapping of specific practices and behaviors to the key pieces of healthy power dynamics is really powerful. The next here would be to explore some of the nuanced tensions between these practices and their implications. 

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Towards healthy power dynamics at work [Bartlett]

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