I believe that we all have innate power. It's a personal power that we hold on to or give away.
Obviously, there are different forms of power, physical, political, emotional and so on. I'm talking about that personal agency, to be heard, to be seen, to influence something.
Let me illustrate this at a fundamental level.
If someone senior to you tells you to do something, do you have to do it? Unless they can physically make you do the task, then the answer is no. It's a choice. We choose to obey an order, to carry out a task, to fall in line.
In the extreme, the choice is between carrying out the task or getting fired. Over time we get so used to this paradigm that we cease noticing that we're choosing to follow directions. The power dynamic has then shifted from being a matter of choice to it being a fact of life.
It starts to feel like that person in charge simply has power over you - it's unconscious. When technically-speaking, you are continuing to give that power to them.
It cuts both ways
Importantly, unconscious power dynamics exist both ways. Many people in authority use their influence without noticing. As a subordinate this can feel hard to understand, it seems so obvious that they're taking up all of the oxygen in the room, or making people do unnecessary tasks for their own egos.
We're born this way. We take up space, cry, and demand for our needs to be met. A baby doesn't suddenly feel like they've overreached or oppressed their parent when they're screaming for food. They just want a thing and then act to make it happen.
So it's no surprise that even collaborative and empowering leaders can still wield a lot more power than they're aware of.
Sometimes a leader has power given to them that they didn't even ask for. As a follower, it can feel safer to give away our power, to have someone tell us what to do. I have seen this play out frequently, no matter how much someone is given autonomy, they still give their power to someone else. It's a game like any other - a strategy to stay "safe".
Making the implicit, explicit
So if we want to tackle this, how do we do it? My answer is to make the power landscape explicit. Openly negotiate who has what authority, accountability, and power.
A great tool I've used is called delegation poker. It comes from Management 3.0. There are seven cards each with different levels of delegation for a task - written from the perspective of the person in power.
Tell - I will tell them
Sell - I will try and sell it to them
Consult - I will consult and then decide
Agree - We will agree together
Advise - I will advise but they decide
Inquire - I will inquire after they decide
Delegate - I will fully delegate
After a few turns using this game with a team, you'll soon learn about people's habitual attitudes toward power.
Another way to reduce the unconscious use of power is Consent Decision Making. This is a process borrowed from Sociocracy and ensures that everyone gets airtime. But it doesn't require everyone to agree and it's a brilliant leveller. It removes the free dialogue where traditional power dynamics typically play out.
In summary, hold power with others, not over them
So try noticing when you're giving power to someone else and also when you're owning it. Taking turns in a conversation can be a good place to observe this.
Beyond any negotiation of power, taking or giving, the real goal is to hold power with others, not hold power over them. This isn’t an easy habit to learn, but mastering this mindset leads to better relationships and a more clear understanding of what is going on in the moment.
Further reading on Leadership
Hierarchy Is Not the Problem…It’s the Power Dynamics by Richard D. Bartlett
Read more from our Leadership Series
Bright Minds leading through actions and connections by Lau Hesselbæk Andreasen