Why unconscious power dynamics block teams from succeeding

By Simone Maus

Power has been an interesting subject in my life. I have been in positions of power and I enjoyed it. I have also noticed how I can be abusive when I do have power and how I can lose connection, empathy and care when I feel powerful.

I have also given my power away plenty of times, particularly in relationships with people who I considered more powerful than me.

I grew up in East Germany and experienced 16 years of living under Russian dictatorship. I then lived in many democratic systems in the UK, USA, New Zealand and now Australia. Coming from this German heritage of catastrophic abuse of power it is a passion of mine to explore how we can remain in integrity when we have power.

So what does this subject have to do with my work with teams? I guess when I look at teams I notice that unconscious and implicit power dynamics and power differences can be a major reason why teams fail. So, what do I mean by power dynamics and implicit unconscious power differences?

The situation

In a more and more egalitarian society we assume that we are all equal and have equal power. Looking a bit closer, we all know that this is not the case. During my work with a co-operative technology in teams, I have realised that even though the team structure and organisation is set up in a collaborative or co-operative way, power differences still exist.

Here are some examples of types of power that may exist within a group:

Positional Power – This person may be a manager, an elected representative, government worker, teacher or other important person.

Assigned Power – Such a role could be as a group or project leader, facilitator, teacher, record-keeper, financial controller, spokesperson for the group, coach or team captain

Knowledge Power – The person may be an expert in a certain field like finance, accounting, town planning, medical professional computer expert etc.

Personal Power – They may have skills in communication or have special mana or charisma related to their life experience. Other factors, which can influence personal power include age, sex, ethnic background, martial status, length of involvement, wealth, or physical appearance.

Factional Power – When several people within a group act together in an organised way to influence or dominate group process or decision making. The degree to which a faction is powerful in a group may depend on the number of people involved, whether they also have other kind of power, and whether or not they form a majority.

Occasional Power – When someone has power for a short period. For example, someone may have particular resources that are wanted by the group for a particular purpose.

(The above definitions are from “Co-operacy – A new way of being at work” by Dr Dale Hunter and colleagues, 1997, page 41-42)

A lot of these power differences are implied and if they are not made explicit they can flatten the energy in a group and can be the cause of recurring conflict in a team.

▶︎ Reflect: What types of power can you recognise in your team? How can you make them more explicit?

The opportunity

I would like to start this section by looking at the actual definition of power itself.

Power in “Oxford dictionary”:

“The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way.”

“The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.”

“Authority that is given or delegated to a person or body.”

 Power in “Co-operacy at work” by Dale Hunter and colleagues, 1997, p35:

 “Power is in itself a neutral force. It exists. It can be used and misused. Power, however, is always a factor that needs addressing in peer relationships as relationships usually involve power differences”

Power in “New Power – How power works in our hyperconnected world and how to make it work for you” by Jeremy Haimans & Henry Timms, 2000, p. 1:

  “Power, as philosopher Bertrand Russel puts it, is the ability to produce intended effects”

So power is really a good thing and a neutral force that drives us forward. In a team, power can come in several different forms, as described above, and it seems that we give who ever holds that power the authority to know or to decide unless the group has an agreed way on how to make decisions. This seems something inherent in us. So it seems power can be given or can be taken away. What does that mean in a team or organisation?

Many organisations nowadays are working hard on creating flat organisational structures. The main reason for that is that much research shows that co-operation and collaboration increases employee engagement, innovation, agility in change and mental and emotional well being in highly changeable and competitive environments.

The definition for co-operation is: “the action or process of working together to the same end” Google Dictionary.

The Synergy

So what are some of the conditions in an organisation that can help with unlocking the collective power and synergy in groups of people? Synergy is described as a state in which all energies in a group align and working together becomes effortless.

I work with the tools developed by Zenergy (zenergyglobal.com.au). We define some underpinning values that help cooperation to flourish as:

·     All people are intrinsically of equal worth.

·     Difference is to be valued, honoured and celebrated

·     It is possible for all people to live and work together as peers co-operatively

·     The best decisions are made by those people affected by them

(From: Co-operacy at work by Dale Hunter and colleagues, 1997, p. 8)

Other underpinning conditions that help sustainability of co-operative processes in teams, that have been identified in the Zenergy co-operative technology research, are:

A)  Free choice is given to everyone involved in the team

B)  Clarity around an aligned team purpose

C)  Alignment of individual, team and organisational intentions

D)  Written, agreed and actively used working culture

E)  Congruence is exhibit of purpose, values and actions

F)   Truthfulness is present and conflict is managed overtly

G)  Energy, Flow and Synergy is present in the team

▶︎ Reflections: Which of the 7 areas are strong in your team? Which of the 7 areas could do with some more work in your team? How could you address the areas that need improvements?

“Use power to fill your sails rather than flatten the lake” David Pecotic, Client

To find out more contact me on:

Mobile: +61 481296728

Email: simone@zenergyglobal.com.au

Website: http://www.zenergyglobal.com.au

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