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:
Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
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.
Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
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.
This post was originally published on this date in 2016 and we find it enduringly relevant today. It contains a true story and a Facilitator’s Guide for handling situations like this.
A True Story
At a recent training I was leading for an all queer and multiracial group, an older white man “John” took offense to my use of the word queer. As an icebreaker, I had asked the group to share in a pair, when did you first know you were queer? During the debrief, John took time to explain how the Q-word brought back painful memories of the many ways he was shamed growing up. As he explained, he got emotional and then said “using the Q-word is like using the N-word for me.” And he actually said the N-word.
The air in the room suddenly got heavy and many people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The three black men in the group looked stunned, and the rest of the people of color in the circle turned to me to do something. The white man kept talking, completely unaware of that this micro-aggression had caused a change in the room. I waited for a white person to address what happened. But folks remained silent, so just as the next person began sharing, I stopped the process.
“I want to stop and check something out with you and the group. Is it ok if I do that?” I asked John and turned to the group to seek their approval. “John, thank you for sharing the impact that I had on you when I used the Q-word in this circle. I want to account to you for that. I also heard you use the N-word and I am wondering if you would be open to hearing the impact that that word could have had in the space?”
February 5, we launch a connection/productivity experiment called Rays. It derives from a critical piece of team infrastructure we invented while working at IISC, the secret ingredient to our team’s performance. Without it, we noticed a gap and with it, the work (and our team) flowed more smoothly. That makes us think our little practice could benefit others. So we’ve decided to do an open call for participants.
The practice is a short, daily meeting: Rays. For less than 30 minutes, you will join an online call and share three things:
RAY: something you are grateful for
TASK: something you are doing that day
BLOCK: something literal or existential in the way
There is no solving. It’s just reporting and listening.
We are inviting people to join us in February (starting as early as the 5th!). You commit to showing up to an online call for 5-days, up to 30 minutes, and sharing.
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.
“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
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?
Last year we organised a Peacebuilders Workshop to create space for practitioners involved in peacebuilding work locally to come together and critically appraise our practice and identify the lessons learned about peacebuilding in conflict/post-conflict contexts. The discussion at that workshop calls to mind a number of important aspects of peacebuilding work that align with our approach at IISC.
Peacebuilding requires at its core the kinds of human principles or values which resonate with those required for other kinds of social change work. These include creativity, relationship building, and networks. Read More
Try introducing the practices of deep listening to unlock a conversation where everyone can both speak their truth and hear other folks’ truths without convincing, berating, or arguing. It’s harder than you might think, especially when you think you are right. But remember, these loved ones probably think they are right, too. And, in entrenched conflicts, everyone generally tends to view themselves as the victim and others as holding all the power. Deep listening can be a powerful way to break through all of that.
In these times, deep listening seems more necessary than ever. So, take the risk to really listen to those around you without trying to convert them to your way of thinking. And ask them to take the risk to really listen to you too, without trying to convert you to their way of thinking. Some of what you hear may make your blood boil. Some may make you shake your head in wonder or despair. Some will make you want to ask more questions. This is good – seeking to understand does not imply you agree. Only that you are willing to explore. In the end, if you can use the guidelines shared below, you’ll create a safe space for conversation where you’ll end up still loving one another and you’ll be better informed and better able to engage in the tumult that is our political space this holiday season and beyond. Let us know what you learn!
The Interaction Institute for Social Change invites you to join a National Call to Action for Unity and Dialogue after the U.S. elections. From the moment the election is settled, we call for a peaceful response from Americans, and from people all over the globe, to the results.
We call for a national conversation in living rooms, workplaces, boardrooms, schools, and government offices to foster healingfrom the divisions that have been deepened by this election, and to explore the common ties that bind us.
We call on Americans to explore with honesty and empathy the role that race, gender, and immigrant status played in this election to create a powerful wedge in our communities. We ask for commitments and plans to remove this wedge, which for too long has deeply threatened, burdened, and dismantled our democracy. It has fostered violence and death and a loss of opportunity and personal dignity. It has constructed glass ceilings and prevented our children from realizing their full human potential.
We call on Americans to talk to each other and not at each other. The use of social media in this election has perpetuated the false notion that we cannot talk to one another or understand one another across differences or party affiliation. This is not true. In the right places with the right facilitation, we can have meaningful and healing dialogue. Unity is not agreement; it is a decision to stand firmly as Americans to embrace ideas and opinions different from our own, and to disagree peaceably in order to foster understanding and better solutions.
We call all Americans into “Big Democracy” – the belief that the public is fully capable of working together to create sustainable, just, and equitable communities. We can provide peaceful ways for the public to come together and – as professor and social activist Carl S. Moore says – “struggle with traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them so they can build a future that is an improvement on the past.” We can create these conditions with shared leadership and shared responsibility, and with the power of love that resides deeply within each one of us.
With this National Call to Action, we call on all Americans to shift the conversation about what is possible. We call on all Americans to communicate, demonstrate, and create places of experimentation to show that it is possible for the public to come together to solve problems and create change.
It’s not too late for us to create a world that is better for future generations using collaborative change. To do this, we need everyday leaders who shift power dynamics towards justice, weave vibrant networks, and magnify love.
Our fate is shared and ALL voices must be empowered to realize our collective genius. Collaborative Change Agents ask, who is not here? What perspectives are missing?
Diversity and difference strengthen solutions. Collaborative change agents work skillfully with and through networks to make change.
Collaborative Change Agents practice treating themselves and those around them with dignity, respect, and the love that every person deserves.
Collaborative change increases trust. People can come together, resolve conflicts, and make the world a better place for all.
Social change networks are complex, compared with other human organizational forms; they are not so easily controlled, directed or predicted. And that is as it should be, especially when dealing with real life diversity and uncertainty. This can cause some anxiety on the part of those who would like to be able to better control for outcome and process and may not be very comfortable with emergence and self-organization. But these are the life blood of complex networks, part of their intelligence and effectiveness, even as people may struggle to wrap their heads around the full picture of what is happening. That’s the way life works.
That said, experience suggests that there is an important effort to be made and role to be played in tracking (even if imperfectly and incompletely) the unfolding story of a social change network over time. This is especially important for those in pursuit of hard evidence of effectiveness and/or some kind of guarantee that there is return on one’s investment of time and other resources. I have noted previously and continue to be struck by the fact that seeing signs of network impact can indeed be difficult, perhaps because of a kind of conditioning around what constitutes “action” and “success.” Furthermore, the pace of life can cut against an appreciation for what is moving right before one’s eyes in fairly nuanced and perhaps more measured ways. Read More
IISC works with clients to expand dimensions of success beyond results. For long-term change to take hold, we help groups understand process and relationships are key factors. In the Communications Unit, we have created a daily practice to keep track of results, process, and relationships in our work. We call this practice “Rays” and we’ve found it works in person, on video chat, over the phone, or even as text or Slack messages.
Rays / Tasks / Blocks
Rays is a 15 minute meeting each day where we briefly share a ray of light in our life, the tasks on our plate, and anything blocking production. Here’s the story of how we do it and what we’ve learned about its value.