Power issues are at the heart of many of the challenges leaders face. Grappling with relational power dynamics is particularly tricky as organisations and teams integrate to 'co-produce' services in pursuit of better quality and efficiency. I notice this as I work with leaders who are working across public, private and voluntary sector organisations where there are obvious power differentials.
Some leaders fear a loss of positional power that organisational change can bring, while others worry about their omnipotence in the face of decisions that affect livelihoods. When leaders get bogged down in inter-organisational power issues it is often because they (sometimes misguidedly) are trying to protect the interests of their organisations.
How are our views formed?
Like most people my views about power emerged through formative relationships creating polarisations in my mind such as parent-child, teacher-pupil, manager-employee, grant holder-applicant etc, etc. As one enters adulthood, however, the polarisations become more complex; diffuse even. Perceptions of personal power will be influenced by factors such as current role, context and previous experience, all of which affect inner feelings of security.
In bringing different organisational cultures together it is easy to see why it can sometimes be problematic. Vosserbrecher suggests that power is at its strongest when it's unseen, so people's perceptions of where the influence lies can dart between individuals within and across different organisations. These perceptions will be dependent on a myriad of factors which may have nothing to do with the current situation.
The key to staying in the 'helpful behaviour' zone in collaborative situations is having an awareness of how we work with power issues and what presses our insecurity buttons. Having an understanding of how we react will enable us to engage more mindfully and productively in the face of fraught organisational dynamics.
For me personal power isn't about wielding power over others but about the power to manage myself with integrity and respect for others. Its about using personal influence to work with people to bring about the changes needed to improve the lives of those we serve. The humility and groundedness of the poem Desiderata resonates with me in this respect.
There is a need for balance though and one of my favourite books on complex change is Adam Kahane's 'Power and Love'. It captures the balance we need to strive for when 'co-creating new social realities' such as in the integration of health and social care. Power in this context is "the drive of everything living to realise itself" and love is defined as 'the unity of the separated'. Kahane maintains we must understand and work with both these drives.
For anyone involved in transforming the delivery of services in collaboration with others, Power and Love is a 'must read'.