Updated: Oct 18
There’s one aspect of distributed-power organizations that always particularly resonates with me: moving away from parent-child organizational dynamics. I’ve long disliked it in each of its manifestations – the lack of initiative as well as the inability to delegate, the helpless victim as well as the patronizing leader. We are so trained in these postures that we often don’t even realize we are assuming them.
These dynamics are deeply rooted in different manifestations of power. Power itself, of course, is a neutral force that can be used well or poorly. Even typical patterns of using power – for example, control or dominance – aren’t problems in themselves (e.g rules for sanitation before surgery). However, we’re so accustomed to certain norms that we lose the ability to even see, let alone practice, alternatives. Peer to peer organizational dynamics lean on other uses of power, including personal power, which encompasses self-knowledge and emotional intelligence – and “power-with”, which includes initiative and influence, but excludes coercion.*
Organizational structures have a big role in setting up power dynamics, but it is also a personal journey. I heard one woman’s story of her early days with a worker-managed organization. Falling into habitual patterns in her conversation with colleagues, she complained about some aspects of the environment. In some settings, this is a typical way to establish connection with others – but in this case, her peers heard her out, and then encouraged her to write a proposal to change it. I expect that in that moment she understood both the freedom and the burden of co-creation.
I’ve recently been surprised to discover places where I’m still assuming a parent-child relationship – as a subcontractor on a project I saw myself maintaining a martyred silence because I felt corrective measures were out of my hands. In an association I belong to, I recognized I’m perfectly happy to receive benefits but haven’t been considering how I can be part of building strength for everyone.
When I’m acting in an adult-adult capacity within organizations, it doesn’t mean I’m getting involved in everything, nor am I assuming that my involvement will yield the results I most desire. My own resources have limits, and I can be strategic about where I’m leveraging them. I can also open myself up to learning, seeing where I can best work with others to create much more significant effects. Being honest around my choices, owning my power without selling myself short or overreaching, can change my attitude around places where I don’t engage.
Easier? More fun? Not necessarily. Deeper? More honest? More mature? I think so – and I think the rewards are worth it.
___________ *These ideas are explained more in this exerpt from “Problem Solving in Teams and Groups”.