Updated: Dec 6, 2021
I’m reading the latest Robin DiAngelo book “Nice Racism”, and am struck by how she examines the way her own behaviors live up to her intentions. She describes one session with a group made up predominantly of people of color. She was mortified to realize later that her net effect was disrespect and harm– it showed up in the way she did and didn’t ask for questions, by standing in front versus sitting in a circle, in providing her own definitions instead of asking for theirs. She has built a career out of identifying and educating on the manifestations of white supremacy, but was blinded to her impact in that moment. The takeaway seemed to be that if white people are going to uproot this particular pattern of dominance it’s going to go really deep, need to be really thorough, and show up as the work of a lifetime.
The author points out traps and patterns – places where we might see ourselves reacting to a shift away from the typical programming, so that we can move past them. What emerges, I wondered, when there’s a different kind of interruption of dominance? Are there ways people can watch for backsliding or sabotage if their organizations move into to a more distributed leadership structure? Do these patterns show up in similarly deep and subtle ways?
Rooting for some answer, I dug up an article by Julie Diamond* that pointed out what can happen when formal power lines aren’t delineated. Informal power, coming from sources like charisma or relationships, isn’t in itself destructive – but lack of clarity can shape these kinds of power into bias and cronyism . Similar to DiAngelo’s work – when trying to re-create dynamics, we can’t rely only on rewriting manuals and job descriptions. We need a vocabulary to recognize many different kinds of power, curiosity to trace it, and will to direct it in constructive and transparent ways.
Earlier this year I was part of an interview with the leader of a Brazilian technology company that uses a distributed power model. His story illustrated another pattern – organizational intentions can get diffused by pressures from the dominant culture. Clients didn’t understand why they might have multiple points of contact. New hires, despite vocal commitment to the principles, can default to hierarchical behavior – not stepping into decision making, assigning power to a “boss”. We need to recognize that we’re counter-cultural and consider how to navigate those boundaries.
Another trap might be a reactionary tendency showing up as all-or-nothing approach, pushing to wave the white flag when challenges arise. We don’t expect traditional organizations to function without hiccups, so why not give that same grace to nontraditional organizations? It’s true that Buffer has not persisted with eliminating hierarchy – but their description of finding a way to better actualize the potential of their employees sounds like engagement and evolution to me, not surrender.
Setting expectations that this will be deep and ongoing work in each case may help us persist in making yearned-for changes – and there’s nothing that says it can’t be satisfying along the way.
*I first mentioned Julie Diamond’s work in the “Both Sides Now” post