Like many people I know, I used to think of hierarchy as entirely synonymous with power-over, and of both as fundamentally wrong. It still takes conscious, mindful practice to remember that I no longer see it this way. Because it’s not fully integrated in me, I am delighted to be writing about this particular myth, imagining that my own faltering understanding might improve as a result, and that it will also make it easier for others to follow my thinking, as I am less likely to speak from the other side of a piece of personal evolution.
Although this is the third installment of this mini-series (see the first, and second), I haven’t yet described what I mean by power-over, power-with, or even power more generally. Given how difficult it is to tease apart hierarchy from power-over, I want to start there. I define power, simply, as the capacity to mobilize resources to attend to needs. This simple definition has been a radical revelation for me, for two reasons. One is that it becomes immediately clear that all of us need power, or we wouldn’t be able to attend to any of our other needs. The other is that in the way I define it power itself appears neutral in addition to being necessary. This definition separates power from how it’s being used: despite our general use of language, power-over is not something we have; it’s something we do – it’s our choices about how we use the power we have.
I have found these distinctions exceptionally helpful in understanding our behaviors, because it serves as a reminder that the urge to use power over others is independent of the actual ability to do so. In other words, it’s not so much that power corrupts; it’s that power provides the possibility of carrying out urges that we might have anyway, regardless of our access to power.
Using our power over others is about taking actions that allow us to attend to our own needs regardless of whether that works or doesn’t work for others. Having certain forms of power shields us from engaging with what others want. Specifically, I am referring here to structural power as that which gives us the option to use power over other people, because of access to more resources. With structural power, we have the possibility of limiting other people’s access to resources, of narrowing their options, and of making choice difficult for them to exercise because of possible consequences we may deliver. That is what structural power gives us. Having such power doesn’t force us to use it over other people; it only makes it possible. It’s still our choice what we do with our power and how we use it. Unless we change our relationship with power internally, we are then likely to use it over others, often not even realizing that we are. Because others bring habitual fear of consequences into every relationship of power difference, it can be invisible to us that we are getting our needs met at their expense. We get our needs met, others don’t, and we can simply make things happen for us, regardless. If people don’t do what we want, we can deliver consequences to their actions that tend to leave them more motivated, based on fear, to do what we want.
Using power with others is difficult to define or describe in part because our linguistic models of power are completely steeped with the power-over model of power as quasi-synonymous with power itself. The key feature of that model of power that makes it so challenging to present something else as power is the zero-sum aspect: if one person has power, another doesn’t; the more power I have, the less power someone else has. The very notion that it’s possible for more people to have more power all at once challenges our habitual ways of thinking.
The notion of human needs, and the question of whose needs are attended to by any action we take or decision we make, has helped me immensely in being able to grasp in full what using power with others can mean once we transcend the framework we have inherited. Using power with others, for me, is about attending to more needs of more people, thereby adding both to their power, their capacity to mobilize resources to meet their own needs, as well as to the whole – time and time again I am astonished by seeing that bringing in more needs results in solutions that tend to be more creative and more robust. I mourn how many people live and die without having this magical experience, because explaining it takes the life out of it, and because I find it so nourishing and trust that many others would, too, if they could only accept the apparent initial loss of control (which we never have in any event).
The etymological meaning of the word hierarchy is “the rule of the sacred.” It initially had nothing whatsoever to do with human ranking, status, or power. I suspect it came to have these associations through the history of the Christian church, a topic about which I know rather little. The Oxford English Dictionary says “The earliest sense was 'system of orders of angels and heavenly beings'; the other senses date from the 17th century.” By now, after whatever history affected the meaning of the word, this word is seen a describing a power-over system.
Nonetheless, even within this context, a different meaning has emerged, again in ways I don’t know, which is “a series of ordered groupings of people or things within a system,” the most notable examples of which is the classification of animals and plants, as well as linguistic or mathematical systems such as databases that are organized as a series of nodes that are connected to each other, very similar to the familiar picture of an organizational chart.
The key difference here is that such systems and orderings are not representing or implying any notion of power, authority, or influence. Sometimes they imply an ordering of importance, sometimes not even that. There is nothing that says that an ant is more or less important than a microbe or an armadillo, for example.
This is exactly the point of entry for understanding how hierarchies don’t by necessity mean power-over. For me that aha happened when I learned about Sociocracy, which is a system of governance invented in the Netherlands and now in use in a growing number of organizations and communities in the US as well. In my understanding of Sociocracy it includes a governance system as well as a very specific decision making process, and only the former is relevant to this discussion. A sociocratic governance structure is based on functional hierarchies that are designed in such a way that the functional leaders do not have the structural power that would allow them to exercise power over others.
The mechanism by which this is done is quite technical and detailed, and I am leaving it out (I am also not a big authority on the topic). The important piece for me is the principle: combining the potential efficiencies that arise from the expertise and authority of functional leaders with the wisdom and emergent qualities of sharing power. Because of how extraordinarily difficult it is for any individual leader to single-handedly overcome the collective legacy of what power means and how we use it, sociocratic structures have built-in mechanisms for subverting the possibility of power-over. Such mechanisms are designed to ensure that even people at the far end nodes of the functional hierarchy have a say, through an ingenious system of representation in a hierarchy of functional circles, in the core decisions that affect the functioning of an organization and their own lives within it.
I don’t imagine that a sociocratic system is the only way to accomplish the complex task of separating the functional from the structural aspects of hierarchy. I only know that I am excited to know that at least some people sorted out this issue and have a solution. Prior to hearing about it, I had some vague inklings that the hermetically negative view of hierarchy was missing something, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, because I was still personally so embroiled in the moral evaluation of hierarchies as bad.
I want to illustrate this difficult point with two examples. The first was one of the moments that changed my visceral response to hierarchy. It happened some years ago, when I was involved in a massive training project in Nonviolent Communication for an international organization that puts together many large scale events every year. When we reached the part of the training that was about systemic and organizational elements, and especially decision-making, they shared with me their process of putting together their events. For each event, a team gets created with a point person that heads the team. While they are committed to collaboration for the creation of the events, for the last few days of preparation the head of the team becomes a temporary “dictator” – it is understood that even if someone has a better idea and is convinced of it, the team leader makes all the decisions so as to maintain the efficiency and movement, and to keep their very high standards for esthetics and logistics. As soon as the event is over and done with, the team does an extensive and collaborative debrief, so that all the lessons can be learned, documented, and passed on to the next team for the next event. By having different people holding different events, by having a collaborative debrief in which everyone gets to participate, and by making the learning available to future groups, the wisdom is generated and everyone’s voice is respected even though for a few days everyone is asked to put their wisdom on hold. The resulting events, some of which I have seen or at least seen pictures of, are stunning in their elegance and flow. I have since seen this system as a powerful example of flexibility.
Although the usefulness of a hierarchical order can be apparent, more often than I would like such systems don’t operate with the grace and wisdom of the above example. For one such example, I know that I get comfort and relief from knowing that if I were to undergo an operation, there would be one person that would be holding primary responsibility for what happens, even if they choose to consult with others. At the same time, this example is strikingly different from the previous one in the absence of the feedback structure, the possibility for the surgeon to learn from the nurses, for example, who forever have to hold their tongues even if they see ways of improving outcomes. Not all hierarchies are born equal…
In order for a hierarchical organization to function in line with power-with principles, direct and careful attention would need to be given to how the structural elements are supporting the use of power. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Gregg Kendrick for conversations that led to this understanding of mine. This list is far from complete.
Accountability: having everyone in a circle or team accountable to a shared purpose for the team they all participate in articulating, rather than to an individual, changes the working relationships and supports increasing collaboration.
Feedback: creating processes and structures for everyone to give everyone feedback both on the quality of their work as well as on the relationships and how everyone is supporting everyone else is another form that allows partnership and reduces the possibility of power being used over others. This is because full flow of feedback would reduce the kind of fear associated with feedback coming from only one source to everyone else.
Decision Making: distinguishing between operational decisions which each person does for their own functions and larger, less frequent decisions that are about goal setting, policies, relationships, compensation, and the like, which are made by the entire team. This allows the efficient flow of daily actions that the hierarchy makes possible while protecting people from negative consequences that can come their way if all decisions are made by one person.
The goal of all these elements is to remove the whim of the individual, so that it’s not up to the functional leader to decide how power will be used. Instead, the structures themselves are set up in such a way that using power over others is next to impossible. A big extension of these small experiments appears in a form I am cautiously heartened by called a B corporation (B for Benefit), which exists in a growing number of states. Intention alone is not enough as long as the structures that keep power-over practices remain in place. I’d like to believe that we can create many new structural forms which support the intentions and move us closer to the dream of making our organizations places where we can all live and thrive.
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