Power Imbalances

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 7 min read

Today, we’re going to talk about power.

Power is a concept that would be impossible to cover in a single blog post.

Narrowing our focus, we’re going to talk about power at work. However, the very same concepts are broadly applicable in the world outside of work including in our homes, our personal relationships and communities, and in our politics and governments.

As we continue our journey of becoming superhuman, we seek to gain clarity. And if we hope to live our values as part of a purpose-driven life, committed to heroic and lovable leadership, we need to explore power.

The Existence of Power

gray GE volt meter at 414

Power dynamics explore the ways in which power works in a particular setting. Any setting in which power exists can result in the emergence of power imbalances.

There are differing views on the origin of power imbalances but I believe most people relate to the existence of power in these two ways.

  1. Some believe that the existence of all power in society is natural, potentially even divinely ordained.
  2. Others suggest that power is a construct that we continually invent and reinvent, intentionally and unintentionally, and which perpetuates or ceases to exist based exclusively on our awareness and actions.

Whichever of these you believe, most would agree that there are systems of power, hierarchy, and control in our places of work.

From my vantage point, one of the problems that come with power imbalances, particularly at work, is how it can negatively impact an individual’s autonomy to govern their own lives. This may include everything from their ability to freely make decisions about their food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, or even existing as their own identity based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ableness, etc.

But the key point I want to boil this down to is that whatever position you occupy in your company, there is a power dynamic at play whether you recognize it or not. This can be based on your position in the company, or your position in an unequal society.

Once upon a time…

As a leader on my team, I always tried to live the values that I espouse in my book The Lovable Leader. Most notably, I have long believed that care, trust, safety, and ambition are the cornerstones of great leadership. Throughout my career, I have tried to treat each member of my team as a person, not an employee. With these values, I have often developed a friendship with the people I’ve worked with.

This sort of closeness, can sometimes make it feel as if power dynamics are no longer at play. This is an illusion. Neither close relationships, beliefs, nor best intentions negate the reality of power dynamics at work or in the world.

To illustrate this, I’d like to tell you a story…it’s work-related. It’s a personal story, and not one I’m proud of.

photo of 2019 light art

In the not too distant past of 2019, I was a leader on a team of roughly 30 people. At the time of this story, I had 5 or 6 people that directly reported to me.

In my pursuit of becoming a better leader, I’d undertaken an interest in how to go about creating diverse and equitable workplaces. At the same time, I was rapidly beginning to question if the current system we are all operating under was creating the best outcomes.

I was at the very start of my education about the history of race in this country. I was slightly further along in my education about class, wealth, and privilege in this country, though I’d not yet reached the intersection of those two topics. So while I had been hostile to the idea of wealth inequality for years, I was not yet particularly well read on the depth of that problem or the unique ways it intersected with various traditionally excluded groups in society.

The problem was, I thought I knew more than I did. That is where it gets dangerous, especially if you hold a position of power, as I did.

This is the setup and context of the story. Here’s what happened.

A story about being oblivious

man holding box

As an owner in the company, I held one of the highest seats of power in the organization.

Two of the most extraordinary team members I got to work with, were black women. Both reported to me, but I didn’t like to think of myself as a boss or authority figure and tried, as a leader, to give my team members support, guidance, and accountability, but with the intention for it to feel like a peer relationship rather than a subordinate one.

I felt that we were relatively close since we worked together everyday and were quite friendly.

I’m always interested in thoughtful or philosophical discussions especially if it leads to solving some of the world’s injustices. So, as I learned more about race, class, and gender, it only seemed natural to share with them, some of my thoughts.

I think the real problem in society isn’t actually racism, it’s classism. Those in the highest classes manipulate everyone else into fighting over race while they run off with all of the wealth. I’m thinking of starting a podcast project about this on the side. Are you interested in working on this with me?

I diminished the size, scope, and impact of RACISM, when talking to two black women that reported to me.

How did this happen?

The caucasity of this shameful memory is hard to over-emphasize. I most likely invalidated their lived experiences, and tokenized them in the process thinking they would be excited to join my side project. But the racist nature of my glaring mistake was only one part of this.

We’re here to talk about power imbalances.

At the time I thought, “we’re friends, they know me, they know my intentions, they’ll be super jazzed about this important project I’m working on.” It hadn’t even crossed my mind that 1) I could be wrong about my hypothesis; and/or 2) that the power dynamics of the situation may have caused them to feel uncomfortable engaging with me safely.

The position I’d put them in was not fair; it was not kind, nor was it safe.

Understanding Power

silver skeleton key with black and silver key

When you have power, whether it is earned, gifted, or privileged, you have a responsibility to understand that power.

No one told me I’d screwed up, I wasn’t called out, I wasn’t called in. I realized it myself, years later. I’ve thought a lot about it since then. Here are the lessons that I’ve walked away with, I hope they help you avoid making the same mistakes I have.

  • Conversations and interactions will always feel different on either side of the power imbalance, no matter how close you think you are to the other person.
  • If you are uncomfortable going into a conversation with someone who reports to you, expect they are even more uncomfortable.
  • If you are not at all uncomfortable going into a conversation about something that traditionally is uncomfortable, maybe take a moment to pause and reflect on why. You might not be seeing things clearly. When you hold the power or influence to terminate someone’s employment, understand that fact is always present to them. So while you may be carefree and flippant in your remarks because you feel safe in your role, that person who reports to you may not have that luxury.

As leaders, we can see our roles as a privilege, as a responsibility, and as a burden. Being a leader is not easy, but it is worth it, and our actions have the opportunity to create ripple effects into the world. We will make mistakes, but we should always be willing to learn from it in our pursuit of growth.

Wield your power responsibly. Center those who report to you. Lead with the intention of creating a world that is kinder, safer, and more equitable.

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