What do all men with power want? More power. — Oracle, Matrix Reloaded

Is power bad, or is the need for power problematic?

Power is a matter of perspective, whether sourced in responsibility, purpose, or choice, or force, control, and results. Our perspective depends on our conditioning within society’s views of power and, culturally, how we internalize those views.

Before we unpack these layers of power, recall that Part 1 of this blog defined the following six dimensions of power: Legitimate, Expert/information, Reward, Coercive, Referent, and Influencer.

We also developed four types of power: at the personal level, power to and power within; at the interpersonal level, power over and power with.

This blog examines power as “power over” or power hoarding. I approach this work inside of mutual learning: to better understand power and cultivate its best form. These three sections of this blog, examine power at the systemic level.

  • Section one explores powerlessness and power hoarding.
  • Section two distinguishes four worldviews that preserve power hoarding.
  • Section three develops four practice areas that cultivate power-sharing.

Each section supports a vertical pathway, developing a personal foundation to interact at the interpersonal level that cultivates power-sharing in organizational life.

SECTION 1: Understanding Powerlessness

I do not believe we can expand our notion of power authentically without understanding and examining powerlessness. This begins with unpacking the nature of fear, threat, and insecurity when we experience powerlessness in the face of change or ignorance. In doing so, we feel the need to exert control or abuse power to protect, defend, or achieve.

Defensive Fear: Losing Self

Fear typically comes from a perceived loss of control or loss of self. The most common fear we hold is a fear of the unknown, which may include unpredictability, uncertainty, or ambiguity.

We can explain fear by how we perceive threats. Research by Carol Dweck on growth and fixed mindsets and Chris Argyris on defensive reasoning reveal how experts and rational individuals find comfort in the control afforded by their knowledge and thus resist growing, changing, and learning.

Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity. Shifting to Dweck’s growth mindset is one solution, but it’s not easy. It takes time to surface and evolve fixed beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about life, success, change, and leadership.

Such a shift requires increased awareness of the underlying fear—complex attitudes that often present disorienting dilemmas and existential struggles.

Adult learning theorist Chris Argyris considers two dynamics that protect our self-image: defensive reasoning and the doom loop. Put simply, Argyris claims:

[P]eople consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act. What is more, most theories-in-use rest on the same set of governing values.

These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”

“Rational” Fear of Change

Argyris describes the defensive reasoning that enables a doom loop as follows:

There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:

1. To remain in unilateral control.

2. To maximize ‘winning’ and minimize ‘losing.’

3. To suppress negative feelings; and

4. To be as ‘rational’ as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether they have achieved them.

The purpose of these values is to avoid embarrassment from the threat of feeling vulnerable or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive and can be overly rational.

Argyris suggests that the desire for high performance and aspirations for success cultivate a professional identity that avoids mistakes and fears failure. The professional identity preserves a “right to comfort” (to save face).

Without tolerance or resilience for “the feelings of failure or the skills to deal with those feelings,” professionals begin a doom loop of despair rather than experiencing or releasing the feelings.

Practices such as pausing, deep breathing, and reflecting on the source of defensive reasoning can cultivate space to expand self-discovery and the ability to receive constructive feedback. I discuss such practices later, but first, we unpack the need for power hoarding and the norms that maintain it.

Understanding Power Hoarding

Many leaders see little value in sharing power; they understand power to be limited, with only so much to go around. Thus, they begin a system and culture of power hoarding.

— Power hoarding often requires secrecy. Those with power control what, when, and with whom they share knowledge and information. The opaqueness of decision-making and rifts within organizations can cause additional problems.

— The lack of transparency is a hallmark of any power hoarding culture. These organizational cultures rely on concepts of leadership based on “leader worship”—perceiving leaders to be saviors and/or heroes. These leaders also adopt a paternalistic posture, assuming that they have the organization’s best interests at heart.

— These leaders believe they can make decisions in the interests of those without power who remain unclear about how decisions get made, yet are familiar with the impact of those decisions on them.

— Those with power feel threatened when anyone questions norms or suggests changes in the organization, and often characterize such probers as uninformed, emotional, or inexperienced.

Power hoarding is baked into an organization’s systems and structures codified in pervasive worldviews via assumptions and beliefs that preserve and promote those attitudes.

This complex web of conditioning forms our expectations and ideals. Subsequently, the pathway to power-sharing first requires surfacing these socialized pervasive mental models that maintain power hoarding. In time, we learn to recognize these worldviews in the policies, incentives, and norms in our organizational culture.

SECTION 2: Worldviews that Preserve Power Over/Hoarding

This Section introduces a complex set of interrelated worldviews that constitute power at the systemic level.

Evolving beyond power hoarding(over) requires distinguishing the underlying assumptions and worldviews codified as structures in our organizations, cultures, and society. Below, I identify four worldviews that support power hoarding: reactiveness, competitiveness, perfectionism, and individualism.

Click to Enlarge

The bolded items below represent often concealed assumptions. For this inquiry, “power” indicates power over as power hoarding, and control refers to controlling external situations, not the self-control that emerges from discipline or agency.

1 – Reactiveness: We defer to those with power to avoid upsetting them.

Organizations that preserve current power structures become reactive, habitually protecting and defending rather than clarifying who has power and how they are expected to use it.

Those in power fear conflict and unpredictable change. They avoid conflict rather than address thorny items, deny problems rather than challenge issues, and fix “problems” rather than question confusion.

Criticizing those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate, while raising difficult issues is equated with being impolite, rude, or out of line.

Much energy is spent working around defensive people, reinforcing the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort.

To avoid the messy and unpredictable nature of emotional discomfort, these systems value logic and rationality (objective facts) and diminish experiential and intuitive understanding.

2 – Competitiveness: Speed and urgency are necessary to succeed and achieve.

With the focus on mergers and acquisitions, gaining profit, first-mover advantage, and scaling, organizational life has accelerated beyond the human condition.

The notions of “built to last,” “sustainability,” “stewardship,” and “servant leadership,” which gained traction in the 90s and early aughts, seem quaint in our current interactive age of “move fast and break things” and “short-termism.”

Organizations incentivize the use or abuse of power to achieve and accumulate, and society celebrates this. Taking time is not rewarded. Presence, care, and quality are usurped by productivity, speed, and quantity.

  • Fragmented attention diminishes thoughtfulness, which reinforces “survival strategies” and the need for more control.
  • “Digital” expectations encourage arbitrary urgency and speed, sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results.
  • Organizations that favor expediency discourage inclusive, thoughtful decision-making and long-term thinking.

3 – Perfectionism: We believe that mistakes should not exist.

Perfectionism and problem-solving frame our organizational ethos. In these systems, leaders, and managers especially do not acknowledge vulnerabilities, mistakes, or ignorance. For many, perfectionism is still held as a badge of honor.

The need to remain in control and excel drives concerns for our “ideal” or “proper” image, which finds us controlling situations and hiding problems to avoid mistakes.

The tendency is to identify what’s wrong with the self or others, and have little ability to identify, acknowledge, and appreciate what’s working well or emerging.

We do not believe that any learning is possible from mistakes. More critically, making a mistake or doing something wrong is confused with being a mistake or being wrong. As a result, we become defensive.

4 – Individualism: We identify with and celebrate our “unique,” separate selves.

The business ethos bolsters the myth of rugged individualism— belief in individual success. Our incentive structures expect and reward immediate results at any cost. We often hear the mantra: “If something is going to get done right, I must do it.”

Individualism undermines distributed leadership and shared power and supports vertical accountability rather than mutual accountability between peers or those served.

We worship individualism in the name of “freedom,” productivity, results, and speed. We use technology to “multitask” and become “more productive,” fragmenting our attention to excel without regard for others. (See blogs here and here.)

Human potential movements reinforce individualism by viewing personal mastery as a hyper-individualistic enterprise that focuses on self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-responsibility, and individual achievement. These values reinforce separateness and otherness, leading to isolation and reinforcing fear of that which we do not understand.

. . .

NOTE: Understanding these four interrelated worldviews above is a first step to recognizing and experiencing power at the systemic level, embedded in society’s structures and cultural norms. In section 3, I introduce four practices that together can support dissolving these four worldviews to cultivating power-sharing.

SECTION 3: Practices that Cultivate Power With/Sharing

Power-sharing values all ideas for the positional expertise and experience they represent. Conscious leaders are transparent and cultivate openness. They invite ideas from others and make space for them to be heard while also sharing budgets and priorities to gather input and questions.

These practices develop the personal and interpersonal foundation to cultivate power to and power within (from the previous blog), which supports power-sharing.

1 – Surface Assumptions: Appreciate questions that surface assumptions.

  • Observe black/white extremes and either/or thinking. Learn to view truths from all sides to create a both/and option (which is sometimes separated by time and space).
  • Appreciate that change is inevitable. Understand that challenging questions can be healthy and productive to leadership, learning, and growth.
  • Develop the ability to live in the question—not attached to immediate answers, verdicts, solutions, or the need to be certain or in control.
  • Move beyond listening for “acceptable” ways to receive challenging issues. Discern between politeness and having the courage to raise difficult issues, and acknowledge those who surface them.

2 – Develop Resilience: Increase your capacity for personal discomfort.

  • Observe items as ideas to explore rather than identities to protect or defend.
  • Notice when you stop, resist listening, or are nominally listening by making the issue about yourself rather than the topic.
  • Observe any reactions, threats, or fears. Pause to be with what arises, and create space to let it pass. Reflect to name fears or threats.
  • Practice sitting with discomfort when people are expressing themselves in ways that are unfamiliar to you.

3 – Develop a Grounded Presence: Slow down and create space.

  • Adopt a view of “leadership,” “productivity,” and “planning” that appreciates how things are more involved and take longer than anyone expects.
  • Become aware of how expectations shape your listening, actions, and goals. Reframe your expectations of “productivity” by letting go of multitasking and 24/7 access as “success indicators.”
  • Expand your listening beyond self-focus to include the impact on others and how others affect the whole.
  • View groups/teams as spaces in which we listen for and discuss ”concerns” rather than just report on activities.

4 – Cultivate Inquiry: Shift your view from controlling to learning.

  • Practice ontological humility. In his book, Conscious Business, Fred Kofman (2006) distinguishes between learners, who believe they see things as they appear as only part of a larger view, and controllers, who claim to know how things are, how they ought to be, and what needs to be done. Learners exhibit ontological humility. Controllers do not.
  • Create a learning culture of practice, not perfection, where mistakes are an expected part of uncertainty that deepens understanding.
  • Let go of immediate verdicts of unknown experiences as “problems” to solve, and instead become open to discovery and surprises. In his work on Learning Organizations, Peter Senge discovered that as people “learned the art of suspension and the group felt less compelled to ‘solve’ problems, more solutions appeared. (See blog here.)

TIP: To support dissolving perfectionism, I offer the Japanese philosophy and Zen tradition of Wabi-Sabi, which embraces beauty in imperfections. This gentle approach relaxes into our naturalness.

An example of Wabi-sabi is the art of kintsugi, where cracked pottery is filled with gold-dusted lacquer. It showcases or praises the beauty of its age and damage rather than hiding it.

Sharing Power Cultivates Dignity

The commitment to shift organizational cultures from power hoarding (over) to power-sharing (with) involves a developmental (vertical) progression that embodies both personal practices and cultural norms.

  • With practice, we develop our personal foundation by expanding power to and power within to support cultivating power with (sharing).
  • Over time, we discover worldviews embedded in organizational structures and systems that shape our ideals and expectations about leadership, productivity, and success.
  • As we suspend certainty and include more voices and participation, we can create a culture based on power-sharing.

The benefit of sharing power involves fuller human experiences and trusting relationships that develop the shared commitments and mutual accountability to cultivate distributed leadership. The ultimate benefit will be organizations designed around human dignity rather than productivity or profit.

Reading Time: 13.5 min. Digest Time: 22 min

View Part One of this blog.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.