Creating a Culture of Shared Power
by Martha Lasley
The myth of scarcity says there isn’t enough power and we each have to fight for our piece of the pie. But in fact there is enough power for everyone, and the supply is unlimited. Many associate power with domination and oppression, but that’s not the essence of power. Power can be compounded and multiplied, like two friends at the gym working together to both become strong. In the same way, we can cultivate a shared-power culture where all needs matter.
Power is simply the ability to meet needs. If we’re powerless, we focus on our own needs, but real power means we mobilize resources to meet the needs of all. I’ve seen plenty of people from third world countries with limited access to resources, barely enough food to survive, focus on others more than themselves. Yet I also know people with millions of dollars still focused on hoarding. We can recognize true wealth and true power as the honoring of the well-being of all people. From this perspective, there are three kinds of power:
As skilled practitioners we recognize and creatively balance all three aspects of power. As individuals, we choose how we use each form of power.
In many organizational cultures, the most prevalent form of power is power-over. When we dominate others, we have power over them or have the ability to get them do what we want. The obvious forms of power-over are violence, force, or threats, but there are much more subtle forms of power-over, including rewards. We have power over others when we hire, fire, and control salaries. Whenever we force others to submit, regardless of their wishes, we have power over them, which usually leads to submission or rebellion, neither of which contribute to empowered relationships.
Power-within refers to the true strength associated with courage, faith, and self-discipline. Self-confidence comes from knowing ourselves intimately and being grounded in our power within.
Power-within arises from deep connections: to ourselves, to others, and to the environment. While power-over promotes fear and aggression, power-within awakens love, peace, and contentment. Reclaiming personal power is a life-sustaining process. One way to multiply our power-within is to develop power-with. When we rely on empowerment to develop power-with, we express our faith that people are able. Power-within and power-with augment each other. We experience exhilaration in our own unfolding and in the unfolding of others.
Power-with reflects the ability to work with others to accomplish results through collaboration. Our ability to listen, empathize with, and understand others helps us to cooperate with others to achieve shared ends. When we have power-with, we’re aware of both our own interests and others’ interests—their feelings, hopes, and needs.
By seeking the inherent power in any relationship, the whole is greater than the parts. Synergy is achieved when we recognize every stakeholder’s interests—everyone’s needs are important. Power is inherently fragile. When people lead through power-over, they tend to hide their weaknesses, ashamed to reveal their shadow side. People who lead through power-with explore their darkness and embrace their aliveness and truth. By sharing their vulnerability, they reveal the source of their inner power—their willingness to grow and change. A power-with style of leadership recognizes every person’s unique gifts, which uplifts and inspires people, helping them to become the best they can be.
A power-over structure requires collusion; someone has to accept powerlessness. When we choose to obey absurd rules, do meaningless work, and let other people control access to resources, we accept the power-over dynamic. Oppression requires consent. But why do we consent? Usually it’s because we’re blocked from heart connection. When we armor ourselves or separate from our emotions, life energy, and deepest desires, we no longer have access to our courage, we don’t take initiative, and we disempower ourselves.
We do not have to give away our power. Instead of power-over relationships, we can intentionally create power-with relationships. In a healthy world, we hold power at the personal level and don’t have to give that control away to “experts” who tell us what to do. We aren’t so easy to control when we have deep personal awareness. Why? Because we don’t get stuck in guilt, shame, or greed when we’re aware of life-giving forces such as love, connection and collaboration. Because our energy is flowing, we don’t have to get ourselves into relationships or jobs that don’t honor life. The natural forces within empower us at the personal and global level.
How do we cultivate a power-with culture where all needs matter? Traditional problem solving usually means identifying the problem and using unilateral control to create the solution. One person makes the decision right away but without getting buy-in. As a result, the problem-solving time is short, but without buy-in, the decisions take a long time to implement.
A more efficient approach is to explore the problem in terms of interests and needs before designing a solution. Facilitated agreements take longer to create solutions but result in faster implementation time and ultimately save time overall. The process means that we “Go Slow to Go Fast.”
As sweet as it all sounds, shifting away from our familiar, habitual ways of giving away power can be a painful process. It’s not easy, but personal growth work helps us get clarity about our motives. What happens when we delve into why we choose complacency, demand our rights, or insist on being heard? The answers uncover our own hidden desires. To step into our individual power and fully honor the power of others, awareness of inner needs is vital. With that awareness we can see the humanity of people in authority roles, re-design our relationships and ensure that pleasure and fun are values that we honor on a daily basis.
Personal awareness is the key to empowering ourselves and others. Even if we have support networks that validate and foster deep change, it can take a long time to change the world through individual personal awareness. Since we work on ourselves only after our basic survival needs have been met, personal growth work tends to be a middle-class activity for people with privilege. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. On the contrary, when we transform ourselves, we move into new areas of transformation and create environments where everyone has power.
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