How to deal with power dynamics

You are here:
< Back

How to deal with power dynamics

QUESTION:How do you deal with power dynamics in the room – when the bosses hold people’s livelihoods in their power and the bosses are the ones in need of serious work?”

ANSWER: I am still trying to figure out how to deal with hierarchy. I was working with an organization and they had me facilitate several different trainings: one for the very top leaders, one for supervisors, and then individual contributors. And individual contributors’ feedback from some was, “How come the supervisors aren’t in the room, that’s who we need to be talking with.”

This organization felt that having supervisors/leaders in the room would actually have the individual contributors not speaking up because of retaliation, you hold my livelihood in your hand. That’s an indication that on the MCOD/Multicultural Organizational Mode, such organizations are probably in the Club or Compliance Stages.

I prefer to have everyone in the room because I want relationships to be built.  I want the senior leaders speaking up, being vulnerable, and modeling skills they want employees to learn in the session

A couple of quick thoughts.

  1. If there are going to be different levels in the room, when I’m doing my welcome, I acknowledge it and I ask, “So who’s got their supervisor in the room, who has two and three levels of leadership in the room”? And then I say, “I’d like everyone to leave their titles at the door, but I’m not naive enough to know that that’s what’s going to happen, but here’s my expectation. If you supervise at all, if you have any leadership role, I’m expecting you to be some of the first people to get vulnerable and honest and tell stories that may feel scary to tell because I expect you to help set the tone here.”
  2. RELATED QUESTION/COMMENT IN CHAT: “I find that leaders and supervisors rarely share anything”. So, sometimes I get to meet with the senior leaders beforehand, usually if I’m doing ongoing work with an organization. But if you’re not or if you’re an internal trainer, I’d suggest you meet with the senior leaders whomever they are. And ask, “So, you’re going to be in the workshop – what do you think your role could be that will help create the container for authentic dialogue, engagement, relationship-building, deeper understanding? What role do you think you can play?”

And if one says, “Oh, we’ll just sit quietly so that we don’t say things that then make it so people won’t talk.” Really? And I’d say, “What do people think?” If they can come to it themselves, they might be more willing to do it. I would then say,

“Well, here’s what my experience is. I actually need you all to show up very early, vulnerable, and honest, even scared, because that’s probably what you’re feeling right now. Scared you’re going to say something that will cross the line, you’ll say something out of bias and then employees will confront you or leave believing you are biased. I’m going to create the learning container for trust and openness and emphasize how we are creating a learning organization where we are all learning together, and people may say things that they were taught and that’s why we’re here to help each other learn.” But, if you stay silent as leaders, people are going to think this training is just to check the box.

  1. So, meet with leaders beforehand, and then, you may want to identify two or three senior leaders (supervisors and above) and even the very top leaders that you talked to beforehand.  I connect with them before the session and urge them, “I really need you – in this first activity where people talk about a time they were marginalized, I need you to talk about your own life experience.  If that’s not feasible, then I need you to talk about the power of hearing six other people talk about marginalized identities and how, as a senior leader you’re appreciating the stories you’re learning.  Express how it helps you recognize times when you felt marginalized even if it’s few and far between. So, I need you to either tell stories or talk about the impact honestly, vulnerably of hearing people tell stories.”

Another thing I’ll say at this point is I’m finding training is a critical part of organizational change. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. And so, even if all you have is an invitation to do training, I would be thinking long term systemic change and how could this one training help move the needle in the organization, so a couple of quick ideas.

E.G. Say, “I’ll do the training.  And to make it most effective, I want to meet with the supervisors beforehand, and then talk about how they can follow up one-on-one with everyone who goes to the training. I’ll give them five questions to ask, but I want them to commit to doing follow up conversations with everyone that went to the training in their area. And one of the questions is going to be, “How can we take some of these activities and bring them into our team meetings?” Because if you keep doing one-off trainings, we’re going to keep spinning the same dynamics.

One way to have supervisors in the room participate is knowing that they’re expected to have these conversations afterwards even if only a few of their team attends with them. ~ they’re expected to have the conversations about socialization or microaggressions and “how do we respond” and “what could you do if”.

Now, I worked with an organization that said they were going to do required follow-up conversations in staff meetings and we talked about how to do it. Unfortunately, 3 months later, they still hadn’t follow-through.

So, what that says to me is, I might need to have a clearer conversation and ask them what they are going to do next week, what are you going to do in three weeks and have them create a plan. Or say, “I know it wasn’t a part of what we negotiated, but if you want to send me a plan and a draft on what you’re going to send out to supervisors, I’ll be glad to glance at and give you my edits.”

So, that’s more work for me, but at this part of my life I want systems to change and I’m finding people just get caught up in the day-to-day. So, if you can learn from that and think, “How can this training be a part of dismantling oppression, how do you get the supervisors and the line of supervision involved?” I believe we can better support that process.

Previous How to deal with colleagues who prefer theoretical approaches to DEI work
Next How to deal with significant racism against students and faculty of color by a few senior faculty members
Table of Contents