Well planned and facilitated Learning Conversations are among the most potent transformational interventions in any leadership development effort.  This is because conversations are the primary way that knowledge workers learn, and well designed learning conversations yield immediate positive results.

Typically the topic or focus of a learning conversation is dictated by the challenges an organization is facing.  However, there are a handful of conversational topics that are universal, and are almost guaranteed to deliver a positive shift in the leadership culture and practices within any enterprise.

After two decades designing and facilitating leadership development programs for businesses, I have come to believe that the mostly unconscious use of power and rank may be the root cause of many common organizational breakdowns and workplace dysfunction.  And so it follows that a robust learning conversation about power within your enterprise, and confronting the “big kahuna” inside, can be a game-changing endeavor.

The Problem with Power

Friedrich Nietzsche believed that power is the primary driving force behind all human actions. Nearly every philosopher from Plato to Bertrand Russell had something to say about the use and abuse of power.  Alvin Toffler, in his book Powershift, helped to mainstream the exploration of power in the business arena.  Toffler defined power as using information, wealth or violence to get people to do what you want.

Toffler’s definition may resonate with many business leaders.  When I ask leaders to define power, it is common to hear that it’s about controlling limited resources and directing people in order to achieve goals.  While this distinction for power is reasonable on the surface, it has within it, beliefs that can lead to the conscious and unconscious abuse of power and rank.

If we believe that power is about controlling limited resources, we create a scarcity mindset that limits cooperation and innovation, puts the priority on dollars, and treats people as a commodity.

It might be more useful to distinguish power in a broader way, such as the ability to expand the flow, direction and quality of energy and information in an organization.  If we embrace this definition, we would be nurturing the life-blood within organizations.  A new distinction for power, and increased consciousness around how we use, and are used by power, will fundamentally change an organization for the better.

The top down, control-over mentality runs deep within most organizations and is embedded in everything from work processes to the design and layout of offices.  It shows up in everything from the way we run meetings to the language we use.  Take the simple word “leader” for example.

The term “leader” implies someone to be led.  Immediately a dichotomy is created, a separation, a class distinction.  When I ask a client, “Who are the leaders in your organization,” how do you suppose they respond?  They typically tell me about people on the top floor.  And only after acknowledging them, might they then include themselves – if at all.

No wonder most “empowerment initiatives” fail.  This notion that leadership is synonymous with authority granted by an organization is but one example of how deep-seated problematic beliefs about power can be.

David Kipnis, a noteworthy social psychologist, did a watershed study which revealed that the more power a manager had the more likely she or he was to devalue the workers they were supervising.  Kipnis reported, “Subjects with power thought less of their subordinate’s performance, viewed them as objects of manipulation, and expressed the desire to maintain social distance from them.”  Obviously, such deep, often unconscious, feelings compel troublesome behaviors that widen the gap between those leading and those being led.

Many leadership development efforts attempt to cultivate behaviors intended to improve the quality of relationship within organizations.  They focus on listening skills; encourage feedback, mentoring, managing diversity, etc.  However, if underneath those learned behaviors there is a belief that “I am fundamentally superior,” skills, such as active listening, have little lasting impact.  Indeed, such unconsciously insincere efforts may have the opposite effect.

When power and rank are routinely abused within an organization, inspired action — a vital life force — is not present.  This deficiency is often difficult to see because the illusion of personal choice and responsibility is usually maintained.  Lip service is given to collaboration, quality feedback, teamwork, brainstorming, and the like.

Power Dynamics and Organizational Dysfunction

Power is a juicy topic to explore with your leadership team because the unconscious use, and conscious abuse, of power often create the very problems or issues that leadership development is intended to address – such as . . .

Diminished personal accountability and responsibility within team members, because of an over reliance upon authority — power granted by the organization.

Restricted flow of information, the lifeblood of an organization, because controlling information is one of the primary ways control-over power is exercised.

Competitive and adversarial relationships rather than cooperative ones, since people are vying for limited, high status “power positions.”

The presence of guilt and blame, because the power to reward and punish are key tenants of the control-over paradigm.

Less creativity and innovation, because power dynamics restrict expression of viewpoints and opinions that radically differ from that of the “power holders.”

Limited collaboration and teamwork, because artificial distinctions between leaders and followers; thinkers and doers, exist.

Breakdowns in relationship, because pulling rank creates separation, and fosters anger and revenge.

Ineffective communication, because the messages from power holders are structured and interpreted in ways that causes their meaning to be lost.  People are continually looking for subtext within messages from leaders.

This list only touches the tip of the iceberg that floats above the murky waters of most enterprises.  Below the serene organizational surface lay the less obvious and more treacherous shoals of misused power and rank . . .

Problems or potential problems are not surfaced and shared when they first become apparent.  This occurs because an early declaration of problems, or potential problems, is often interpreted by those holding power as resistance or a lack of cooperation.  In reality the declaration of potential problems the moment they are perceived is a courageous and useful leadership act.

Diminishing commitment, a lack of wholehearted action, is the result of limited personal choices.  There can be no commitment without choice.

Turnover, absenteeism and illness increase because oppression creates physical and emotional stress that, over time, undermines health.

Revenge subtly shows up within business organizations – often as inaction, and is usually mistaken as lack of motivation or miscommunication.  The passive-aggressive phenomenon where team members seemingly agree during a meeting, and later withdraw support, is one example of how revenge can manifest.

Pseudo-loyalty is created when people trade personal power and freedom of choice with the expectation that their lives will become safer and less chaotic.  So, when organizations need the commitment of people the most — when they are struggling, cutting budgets and downsizing — people bail out physically and emotionally because they feel swindled.  They’ve traded their personal power for a “broken promise.”

Exploring Power — a High Priority Endeavor

Having identified the negative impact of abusive power, it hardly needs mentioning that power, defined as expanding the flow, direction and quality of energy and information, is absolutely essential in business organizations.

We all need power to get things done.  But what kind and form of power would be most effective in your organization and culture?  I offered one definition for power; however each enterprise must create its own distinctions for power.

The question for leaders is, “What can I and my organization do to ensure that power is consciously used in healthy and beneficial ways?”  This learning conversation can be approached directly or via a variety of related topics such as:

Locus of Control — What each of us believes about what we can and cannot control or influence shapes how we use and possibly abuse power and rank.

Scarcity /Abundance Mindsets – Which of the two camps one falls into drives their power norms.  As noted earlier, a scarcity mindset underlies control-over behavior.

Accountability-Responsibility–Authority — These three domains of power often get confused.  Distinguishing them in a pragmatic way, and getting agreement on these three distinctions, encourages reliance on legitimate power.

Inquiries into personal and organizational power dynamics has in itself a transformational affect because it is not simply a conversation about power, but a process that reduces abusive power.  This happens because power games lose their effectiveness when they are exposed.  I can recall a comment from one of my clients who, after telling his “power-abuse story” during a team dialogue added, “I guess I’ll never be able play that game again.”

A robust learning conversation about personal and organizational power dynamics should be a high priority endeavor.  Any organization cannot fundamentally and sustainably improve its effectiveness without changing its beliefs about power and the patterns, practices and structures that flow out of those beliefs.