11 Practical Steps Towards Healthy Power Dynamics at Work

More empowerment, less coercion

Richard D. Bartlett
Mar 15, 2019 · 10 min read

In Part 1, I explained what I have in mind when I talk about “hierarchy” and “power”, introducing three different types of power:

  • power-from-within or empowerment
  • power-with or social power
  • power-over or coercion

In this second part, I get into the practical stuff: 11 steps towards healthy power dynamics.

I’m primarily writing this for people that strive towards “non-hierarchical” organising, but expect the lessons will translate into any organisational context.

Empowerment: How to Maximise Power-From-Within

Because of the intersecting injustices of modern societies, the degree of encouragement you receive when you’re growing up will vary greatly depending on many factors like your personality, gender, physical traits, and cultural background. If you want everyone in your org to have full access to their power-from-within, you need to account for these differences.

Step 1. Encourage your peers

Step 2. Discourage permission-seeking

Step 3. Create practice spaces

Step 4. Find you mentors

Step 5. Rotate roles

Okay, that’s the easy level. If your group power dynamics feel out of balance, you can always return here to keep practicing these fundamentals. Now it’s time to get into some more difficult territory.

Social Power: How to Make Power-With Transparent

Step 6. Break the power taboo

In most spaces, it is uncomfortable, exposing or counter-cultural to talk about power. It’s not just awkward, it can be a deeply unsafe, psychologically triggering conversation. It takes a lot of preparation and care to create a safe and productive container for a group to talk about their power dynamics.

But once we break the taboo, we can start to distinguish between the different kinds of power. We notice that some power imbalances are toxic (e.g. bullying), while others are healthy (e.g. eldership).

Surprisingly, when Nati and I host conversations about internal power dynamics in a team, the insight we hear most frequently is a sense of empathy for the people who are holding the most power. We hear how difficult it can be for the people holding the most influence, responsibility and care for the project, especially when their mandate is unclear and their support is insufficient.

Step 7. Name the levels of engagement

This creates a lot of angst for people who think it’s important for everyone to be engaged. Trying to “engage everyone” is a Sisyphean task. In my experience it’s much easier to just make the different levels of engagement explicit, give each group of stakeholders a name and set of rights and responsibilities, and create transparent supported pathways for people to move in and out.

I learned this pattern from Enspiral: the People Agreement explains that most network participants are “Contributors”, and about 10% or 20% of them take on the extra role of “Member”, which temporarily conveys extra rights and responsibilities. For a more business-flavoured example, check the Fairshares framework for multi-stakeholder co-ops, which defines 4 categories, each with a different role to play in governance: founders, workers, funders, and users.

In the Enspiral example, the people with more influence also have more scrutiny. The Members hold each other to a much higher standard than the average Contributor. This is an essential principle of accountable governance, and another ingredient to create transparent power-with. I don’t know how to create these accountability structures if the different levels of engagement are implicit.

Step 8. Limited decision mandates

Probably you think of different people for each of these questions. The person that comes to your mind for a specific domain is the one who has more social power in that area.

In “horizontal” or “non-hierarchical” teams, we can have an aversion to naming these differences. We can avoid naming who is leading in which department, but that will not necessarily level the power dynamics. Rather, it seems to me to be safer and fairer to give transparent, enthusiastically consentful, limited mandates to people to make decisions within their domain of expertise.

Manuel Küblböck’s blog about decentralised decision-making at Gini is an excellent reference here. See also Tom Nixon’s blog about initiative mapping, which uses Maptio, a sweet software tool for making these friendly circular hierarchy drawings :)

A screenshot showing Maptio’s friendly circluar org charts

Coercion: How to Minimise Power-Over

For me, the question of coercion is the single most important determinant of organisational life: does anyone have the power to force another person to do something against their will?

Coercion is the norm in many traditional workplaces: my way or the highway. Coercion is cultivated both in the formal command-and-control structures that determine worker behaviour from above, and the informal power games that emerge in the fiefdoms of office politics.

When we describe ourselves as “non-hierarchical”, I think that’s what we’re reaching for: a space free of coercion. But labelling your group “flat” or “self-managing” or “decentralised” does not automatically resolve the subtle, complex, tenacious habit of people trying to control each other. I believe the right organisational structures and cultures can help us grow out of this habit.

I have a few practical steps to offer here too. 2 of them are easy, but you might freak out at the last one.

Step 9. Consent-based decision-making

There are some critical decisions I still want to take by consensus, where we patiently negotiate until everyone is satisfied that this is the best proposal we can come up with. But for most day-to-day decisions, consent is sufficient. It’s a beautiful balance between the speed of autocracy and the inclusion of consensus.

Samantha Slade’s blog post on Generative Decision Making explains a simple method you can try it in your next meeting, in any organisation. Or if you don’t want to always be in meetings, you can make consent decisions online with Loomio.

Step 10. Celebrate dissent

In collective decisions, notice if someone says “No” when the rest of the group is saying “Yes”. It can be frustrating when someone presents an objection. But before to jump to changing their mind, start from empathy. Being the lone dissenter is always a risky and courageous position. My first priority in that situation is to check that they have someone supporting them in their dissent, before we try to negotiate further and bring us to a new agreement.

The kind of people who are attracted to “non-hierarchical” organisations (like me, for instance) are often hyper sensitive to coercion. We will get defensive at the slightest hint of conformity or peer pressure. It helps me a lot if you regularly remind us that we have the right to choose, e.g. starting a workshop with a reminder that anyone may pass on any exercise or question.

Step 11. Share the ownership!

While horizontal management is getting more fashionable these days, this is the one critical step that almost no self-management coach or decentralised organisation designer or collaboration thought leader will ever tell you.

I mean “ownership” in every sense: directorial (who sets the direction of the organisation), financial (who allocates budgets and profits), legal (who is responsible from the perspective of the law), and psychological (who loses sleep worrying about it).

Co-ownership distributes these risks and responsibilities across many different stakeholders, not just the founders or financiers. Co-ownership is the ultimate safeguard against coercion at work.

You may work in a highly decentralised company, but if there is someone with the authority to unilaterally decide that you don’t work there anymore, your power dynamics will always be out of balance. If someone has the power to fire you, they will use that leverage to force your compliance whenever they think it is necessary. That’s a fundamentally coercive environment.

This is why I believe it is dangerous to focus on the shape of an organisation instead of its power dynamics. Labelling your workplace as “non-hierarchical” or “self-managing” or “decentralised” can create a false sense of security that ends with a painful wakeup call. I’ve seen this most recently as a number of my friends in the blockchain industry lost their jobs when a number of crypto companies laid off 10–70% of their staff. Before the lay-offs, they thought they were living in the “future of work”.

I’m not willing to argue that every organisation should be co-owned by all the workers, but I can confidently declare that all workers should be clear about the real power dynamics of their employment environment.

My concern is that words like “non-hierarchical” and “self-organising” create a smokescreen, masking the real power dynamics that are ultimately determined by the ownership structure.

If you want to explore different ways of sharing ownership, you will find a thriving network of worker-owned co-operatives in just about every corner of the world. There’s a Worker Co-op Weekend coming up in the UK in May. There are other models too, check out Steward-Ownership and the Fairshares multi-stakeholder governance model.

There Is No Perfect Shape

You can take these 11 steps as a prompt for reflection and experimentation in your group:

11 Steps Towards Healthy Power Dynamics at Work

  1. Encourage your peers
  2. Discourage permission-seeking
  3. Create practice spaces
  4. Find your mentors
  5. Rotate roles
  6. Break the power taboo
  7. Name the levels of engagement
  8. Limited decision mandates
  9. Consent-based decision-making
  10. Celebrate dissent
  11. Share the ownership!

My experience is mostly with decentralised organisations, so I am mostly speaking to you cooperators, horizontalists, Teal reinventers, collectivists, Agilists, and self-managing starter-uppers. I know from experience how power works in these groups. And I’m willing to speculate that many of these suggestions can be applied in any group, right now, regardless of what structure you use.

Postscript: Further reading & doing

p.s. Published by Richard D. Bartlett, with no rights reserved. You have my consent to reproduce without permission: different file formats are on my website. If you’re feeling grateful you can support me on Patreon.

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