Dimensions of Power

Powerful steam engine

“Well I’m a senior engineer so we’ll do it my way.” I always hated conversations like that as a junior engineer but they seem to be a natural consequence of titles. Keep titles private and the best ideas will win instead of the best titles. Right? 😬

At Gusto we recently switched from private engineering levels to public engineering levels — everyone has access to everyone else’s level now. The tradeoff is that you’d like engineering decisions to be aligned with knowledge and competence instead of formal level except that engineers from under-represented groups have a harder time getting credit for knowledge and competence. Public levels also pressures the organization to align engineering levels with knowledge, competence, and accomplishment, something engineers from under-represented groups also have more trouble with than pale males like me.

As part of the transition to public levels I wanted to emphasize to senior engineers and engineering managers that levels should not be misused. I designed & team-presented a training course called Influence Across Power Differentials. (More on the course later if folks are interested.)

The List

While preparing for the course I started listing all the dimensions along which power could flow in a supposedly purely technical conversation. I stopped at 56. I wasn’t done. I was just getting depressed at how many ways I had been wielding power without being aware of it.

I’ll get into what I’m learning about the ethical, responsible application of power in the future. For now, here is my list of ways I (and you) exercise our power advantages & experience our disadvantages. I encourage you to make your own list and become aware of when a power difference comes into play.

Organization

Where you sit in the organization chart matters. For the first time in my career I report to the CTO instead of being a leaf node. People take me more seriously as a result.

Formal authority — Being a manager means you evaluate your reports in ways they don’t evaluate you.

Title/level — Title differences matter between people, even if everyone tries to play it cool.

Geography — Being at headquarters (back when that was a thing) gives you power you don’t have if you’re not seen daily by those with power.

Organization — Which organization you’re in gives you power. Protip: the closer you are to the flow of money the more power you have.

Innate

Gender — Men have power women don’t have, for all kinds of nonsense (and some truly horrible) reasons.

Race — Here in America to be white is to have power.

Accent — Speaking the dominant dialect gives you power over those who don’t.

Height — Taller people exercise power. My dad was 6' 4" (190 cm) and he used it.

Economic background — Come from a wealthy background and you are comfortable with and smoothly navigate high-power situations.

Expectations — My parents, my family, & my community expected me to achieve. That gave me a leg up when encountering difficulties. (I manage to shit-talk myself, but that’s a separate issue.)

Facial/body genetics — Being attractive to your community confers power. The dimensions interact, though. If you’re too attractive as a woman, you lose power.

Vision (good eyes) — There are situations where better eyesight gives you more information.

Memory — Similarly, just being able to remember hideous amounts of detail confers power at times. (Tom Gilb likes to include page numbers when reciting his own quotes.)

Extraversion — The ability to sustain, or even (how do they do it?) be energized by, social interaction.

Physical ability (wheelchair) — Being able to walk around lets you jump up to the whiteboard (for example) more readily.

Behavior

Obscenity — If I am the first person to say “fuck”, I am asserting power.

Anger — If I am comfortable expressing anger, I have power over those who have to suppress it.

Humiliation — Feeling the right to humiliate someone else is a particularly distorting form of power.

??? Not sure what to call this grouping

Weight/fitness — Being in shape gives you power over people who aren’t, whether the difference is genetic or the result of effort.

Social connections — Knowing the right people confers power.

Professional connections — Knowing the right people in your profession confers power.

Age — This is a tricky one. 35 seems to be the peak of age-based power in tech.

Gravitas — Carrying yourself with confidence confers power.

Experience — Having done lots of different things confers power. Having already once done the task at hand also confers power.

Enthusiasm — The enthusiastic person in the room is more likely to sway a conversation.

Confidence — Belief in ones self confers power.

Knowledge — Knowing relevant stuff confers power.

Manners — Knowing how to act confers power. Also knowing how to act up (“A gentleman never insults anyone unintentionally” — Oscar Wilde).

Emotional self-awareness — Knowing how you feel gives you leverage over those who don’t know how they feel.

Emotional articulation — Knowing how to express your feelings constructively gives you leverage over those who don’t.

Emotional regulation — Knowing how to regulate your emotions gives you leverage over those who can’t (I see this at the poker table).

History — Having a rich trove of stories confers power. “I remember back at Facebook in the early days we would…”

Reputation — When you have an established reputation, people assume you have something valuable to say. (The Terman Effect is the dark side of reputation-as-power.)

Domain knowledge — Knowing your domain well confers power. My last team was reporting taxes to tax authority & the people who’d been doing that for years had influence, and rightly so.

Publication — Being published is a source of power, by proxy, perhaps. A publisher deemed your thoughts worthy so they are worthy?

Reading people — Being able to read peoples’ emotions & intentions is a source of power. Because I’m so naturally bad at it I practice at the poker table several times a week.

Reading groups — Being able to read the “sense of the meeting” is a related source of power. Are we ready to move from venting to solutions?

Reading situations — It’s not just the people involved, it’s also the situation. We were on stable ground but now all hell has broken loose. If you can spot this transition you have power.

Politics — Bundle people, groups, & situations & you have politics. I can’t “play” politics so I just opt for bluntness. At times there are more powerful strategies.

Numeracy — Being good at numbers & math can leap you ahead of your peers.

Literacy — Being well-read, recognizing allusions, & invoking them gives you power (in the right crowd).

Forethought — Being able to see steps ahead confers power.

Free time — Having discretionary time to spend gives you power compared to someone more constrained.

Money — ‘Nuff said.

Gym time — One of the ways you can spend discretionary time is becoming more fit (see above).

Meta-cognition — Thinking about your thinking sometimes allows you to short-circuit your own biases faster than others. It can also blind you.

Thinking on your feet — Thinking quickly in pressure situations gives you power over those who need more time, regardless of the quality of said thinking.

Vocabulary — More words, more better. But also, using inappropriate vocabulary can cost you power.

Argumentation — Being able to logically argue can provide power. This one’s tricky, though, because arguments rarely convince. If you don’t know when to turn it off, you lose power.

Communicating graphically — Being the first one to draw the right graph conveys power.

Communicating slides — I hate that this is true, but having worked with people who are good at slides I can say that they have power I don’t have.

Communicating in prose — Being good with words conveys power.

Story telling — Telling stories is a particular way of being good with words.

Envisioning — Being able to extrapolate a situation to a positive conclusion (or as I more often do start with a positive conclusion & work backwards to today) conveys power.

Personal style — Having a unique, memorable style conveys power. (E.g. I like starting video meetings with live banjo.)

Conclusion

The ideal state of an organization is some combination of:

  • The best decisions being made &
  • The individuals involved learning and growing as much as possible in the process.

Power differentials will always exist. Wise, effective use of power to achieve good decisions & growth require those with power to lend it to those with less.

Power: Listen, Feel, Reveal

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Kent is a long-time programmer who also sings, plays guitar, plays poker, and makes cheese. He works at Gusto, the small business people platform.

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Kent Beck

Kent is a long-time programmer who also sings, plays guitar, plays poker, and makes cheese. He works at Gusto, the small business people platform.