Posted in Collaboration

July 11, 2018

Power Dynamics: The Hidden Element to Effective Meetings

Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.

Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.

In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.

Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.

At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:

  1. Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
  2. Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
  3. Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
  4. Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
  5. Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?

So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?

  • Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
  • Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power.  Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
  • Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
  • Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
  • Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.

The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.

 

 

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April 18, 2018

Leadership in a Network Age

“Network entrepreneurs are keenly aware that they are few among many working across the larger system, and in this way they embody a special type of … leader[ship].

Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman & David Sawyer, “The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of”

Image by tarotastic, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

This is the third in a series of blog posts that appear in their entirety on the Education Week website. In the previous post we considered how structure has implications for the extent to which a network or networked activity is able to leverage different kinds of net effects and create value for diverse participants. We also considered how structure has implications for both equity and how power is distributed. Another important consideration in how to create equitable benefit is what leadership looks like and how it plays out in and around networked activity.

The concept of leadership seems to be undergoing a rapid evolution lately. Especially in this “network age” there appears to be both a growing appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular and highly visible heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership must be upheld as much more of a shared and multi-dimensional endeavor.

“Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it is a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.”

– Nora Bateson from Small Arcs of Larger Circles

In much of the collaborative consulting work that we do through the Interaction Institute for Social Change, leadership (or what we at IISC often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole.” That is, there is a need for groups, teams, organizations and communities to think more expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, food system, organization, school, school district) and pay attention to what is required to support resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustained benefit. In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall short.

In education, for example, we have seen hopes often pinned on seemingly superhuman teachers and principals who are brought in to “rescue failing kids and schools.” The assumption underlying such moves is that these extraordinary individuals will of their own drive and volition beat the odds and dramatically reverse the downward trajectory. This story may be the making of a box office smash, but in reality is met with mixed results at best. This is not to say that individuals cannot provide crucial sparks at important moments in organizations and communities. But holding out for heroic singular leadership ignores the systemic reality of what got us to where we are in the first place, and denies the more complex and connected response that is actually required.

“Leadership is helping to make the network smarter.”

Harold Jarche

Indications are that network leadership is at its best a dynamic, diverse, and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Many of those with whom IISC partners in the work of social and systems change understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them externalize and be more explicit about this by naming some of the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked world. Read More

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December 12, 2017

Network Principles in Action = A Visual Gift!

Image created by Claudio Nichele, shared with permission of the artist and available through Flickr.

I mentioned in a previous post how much I love Twitter, for a variety of reasons, including how it helps me to see networks at work and can help create a variety of great network effects. Well I have reason to yet again appreciate it, as a recent blog post I put up inspired Claudio Nichele, who is located in Brussels, Belgium and works at the European Commission, to create the great sketch above of the network principles I wrote about (see below).

Just like that, an unexpected gift and enhanced visual value! I asked for Claudio’s permission to post, which he granted, and we both agree it is a wonderful example of what happens when you work out loud (see principle #9 below). Enjoy, and please feel free to rift on these images and the principles below, and if you do, let both of us know what you create. Read More

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November 29, 2017

Strategies for Creating Space for Conversations on Racial Equity

Increasingly, social sector organizations are applying collaborative change frameworks and tools to engage in racial equity transformation. In a pattern reflective of the broader movement for racial justice, employees, often women of color in particular, are challenging organizational commitment to racial equity internally and programmatically. Often people who are ready to take action want to know what they can do to create space for the conversations needed to catalyze racial equity transformation.

The list of strategies below was generated by Marlon Williams, Ratna Gill, Madeline Burke and Kimberly Dumont, during our Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work workshop held in NYC earlier this month.

  1. Data: Use data to identify and initiate a conversation about inequities
  2. Training: Invest resources in training to staff to learn about racial equity and create the space for them to bring insights back to the organization
  3. Elevate Voices: Look for expertise throughout the organization’s hierarchy and give power to those with the capacity to lead, regardless of position.
  4. Personal Capital: Leadership and those with significant person capital can use if in service of prioritizing conversations about equity.
  5. Crisis: Incidents in the news that highlight the impact of our racial disparities can serve as a call to action.
  6. Personal Ownership: A commitment to racial equity should be owned by specific individuals throughout the organization’s structure.
  7. Outside Voices: Bring in outside voices to validate the need and urgency for having a focus on racial equity.
  8. Highlight the Loss: Identify the the risks or potential loss of not having a focus on racial equity.

Have you tried any of these strategies? Is your organization embarking on a journey of racial equity transformation? We can help.

 

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October 2, 2017

Re-Launching and Refining a Network Leadership Institute

“We cannot live for ourselves alone.  Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”

– Herman Melville

2017-2018 NLI cohort members engage in a team building exercise focused on the dimensions of collaborative success.

Last week I worked with the Backbone Team of Food Solutions New England to launch the second cohort of the Network Leadership Institute (NLI) at Ohana Camp in Fairlee, Vermont. This initiative has grown out of FSNE’s commitment to cultivating both thought leadership and network leadership “to support the emergence and viability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” Another impetus for the NLI was a year spent doing system mapping and analysis that revealed four leverage areas for advancing a just, sustainable and democratically-owned and operated regional food system, including cultivating and connecting leadership (see image below). Read More

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September 19, 2017

Facilitating (and Leading) “From the Chair”

Photo by Siew Yi Liang, shared under the provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

 

One of the questions that often comes up in our popular workshop, Facilitative Leadership for Social Change goes something like this,

“It’s great that I’m learning all of these practical leadership and facilitation skills, but what happens when I’m not the one leading or facilitating?” 

How can we keep things rolling when we aren’t formally in charge and when formal leadership is perhaps not so skillful? My answer: There’s usually some opportunity to lead, ask good questions, and to facilitate from the chair! Read More

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August 15, 2017

Change the Space, Change the Conversation

Graphic from Nadia von Holzen, used with the artist’s permission.

I love Twitter.

On the heels of the Hunts Point Resiliency Collaboration Lab (about which a blog post is forthcoming) that a team of us from IISC facilitated a couple of weeks ago, I tweeted the following –

“Change the space, change the conversation. Change the conversation, change the possibilities.”

Without getting into all of the details, by shifting what might otherwise might have been a typical meeting through the use of art, music, tactile objects, intentional arrangement of seating, delicious food, robust opportunities for interaction, etc., those in attendance acknowledged that we were able to get to authentic and important conversations that many had been eager to have. And these have opened some opportunities about which people are very excited.

My almost off-handed tweet was picked up and retweeted by a few people, including Nadia von Holzen, who then put together the wonderful graphic above and put it back into the Twittersphere. I love the enhancement and contribution. Thanks, Nadia!

This is another example of what can happen when you “think or work out loud.” In this intricately connected world, you never know who is listening and what gifts they stand poised to bring to your humble offerings.

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August 8, 2017

Why the Leader is the Network

Photo by Sandeep Mani, shared under provisions of Creative Commons attribution license 2.0.

I am saddened to learn that Mila Baker passed away recently. While I did not know her personally, she was a mentor from a distance. A few years ago, I read her book about peer-to-peer leadership and found it both enlightening and validating as I continued my journey to uncover more about the promise of seeing and doing in networked ways.

Mila N. Baker

 Mila Baker was a writer, teacher, philanthropist, cross-sector leader and artist. At the time of her passing, she served on the Board of Directors for the Berrett-Koehler Foundation, was a member of the adjunct faculty at Columbia University Teachers College, as well as a Principal Research Investigator at the Institute for Collaborative Workplaces, and Visiting Professor at Kuwait University. The following is a post I wrote after reading her book published in 2014.

I just finished reading Mila Baker’s Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, which adds to the growing case for more widespread network thinking, foregrounding of human relationships, and shifting traditional conceptions (and myths) of leadership in business and beyond. Baker’s book echoes the spirits of Margaret Wheatley, Clay Shirky, Carol Sanford, Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Kelly, and Harold Jarche, and I appreciate how she couches her writing in the evolving leadership and organizational development literature and thinking.

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July 11, 2017

Complexity, Equity and the Place of “Expertise”

“Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong … willing to learn, to explore new ideas, to go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories.”

– Nora Bateson (from Small Arcs of Larger Circles)

“Expertise” is one of those concepts that seems to get a good vetting every now and then, and in the current climate of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and networked approaches to change, there is certainly good reason for this. Mark Twain once quipped that what made the expert an expert was being from someplace else. There may be some truth and value to this view; when a set of “outside” eyes can lend fresh new perspective to a situation. And it is also the case that deference is often given to this version of expertise at the expense of local and other diverse sources of knowledge. Read More

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May 8, 2017

Honeybees Build Consensus so Why Can’t We?

One of the many things I appreciate about adrienne maree brown’s new book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, are the questions she asks over and over again: what are you learning from nature? how does nature inform your organizing and movement building efforts?Autumn Meghan Brown, interviewed in this book, talks about consensus. Building consensus is one of my favorite practices to teach in IISC’s Facilitative Leadership for Social Change workshop. People love consensus and people hate it; I’ve seen many people struggle with when and where consensus is the appropriate decision making method, and with how to facilitate an effective consensus decision making process.

IISC’s Framework: “Levels of Involvement in the Decision Making Process,” above. © 2013 Interaction Institute for Social Change. All rights reserved.


I believe two reasons for this are that we live in a society with an unhealthy relationship to time, and with a low level of skill for collaborative group process. Autumn says these wise things about consensus:

  • The history of consensus is deeply rooted in feminist and Indigenous movement work
  • Building consensus is the work of collective liberation
  • People want consensus to be an antidote to power, but it is not! Consensus does not require equal status; it requires equal voice.

So back to brown’s question, where does consensus happen in nature? What might we learn from nature about consensus?

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April 25, 2017

Strategic Questions From and For Liberating Structures

With inspiration from Nancy White – thank you! (and make sure to check out Nancy’s blog) – I have been returning to and reviewing the list of Liberating Structures created and collected by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless for application to some strategy development work with a couple of social change networks. As described on the website:

Liberating Structures are “easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust.

Liberating Structures are meant to foster enlivening participation in groups of all sizes, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone.”

In reviewing the various structures, I’ve pulled out and added to a list of strategic questions that could be offered in concert with different group processes (World Cafe, Open Space, pair shares, fishbowls, individual reflection, etc.) to open up possibilities … Read More

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