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.
Last week I had the privilege of co-leading a three day Facilitative Leadership for Social Change training for a group of health equity advocates in Springfield, Massachusetts. It had been a while since I had done a training of that length, and it was a nice opportunity to not only cover more material, but to deepen the conversation and practice. Along the way there were many good questions about what to do around various challenges when one is co-leading a collaborative change effort. And a common response was, “It depends.”
Every group is different, every circumstance is different, and while it might make sense to take some cues from what has been successful in other situations, the caution is not to assume that it will work, or work in the same way, in other situations. This is one reason that I personally do not like the phrase “best practice” when talking about collaborative and facilitative change work. Given the complexity of people and social systems, I find it more helpful to think about “promising practices.”
That said, a promising practice that came up time and time again in our three day training, was the practice or practicing, of ongoing devotion to muscle-building in leadership skills such as process design, facilitation, coaching (leading with listening and inquiry), systems thinking, visioning/imagining, mutual learning and collaborative decision-making/governance. And in undertaking such practice, we at IISC would suggest this is not about achieving perfection. The humbling and exciting thing about collaborative leadership, in my humble opinion, is that it is a life-long learning pursuit and an endless opportunity to deepen understanding of ourselves, others and living systems. For this reason, one of my mantras is:
Practice for presence, not for perfection.
That is, practice can help practitioners get beyond being caught up in simply “learning the scales” of collaborative leadership, in trying to get the skills “right.” Practice at its best can contribute to a state ofbeing more fully present to what is happening in any given situation and being able to work with that in powerfully improvisational ways.
Furthermore, over the past year, there has been a clear call for practice and practices that are explicitly about cultivating spaces to hold difference and tension and trauma. That may be another order of presence characterized by a deeper tuning in and movement away from more transactional processes to ones that are emergent, co-created and geared towards supporting moral courage and imagination. What that can require is vulnerability and a humble sense of “being with.” What it stands to make possible, as opposed to business-as-usual, is growth and real movement forward, together.
“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
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?
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!
Many of us who identify politically as left of center, and who work in nonprofits or foundations, have been upset, shocked, angry, sad, disappointed and more about the election of Donald Trump last week.
In reaction to this loss, many are awakening to the white supremacist (alt-right) forces gaining strength in our county. Many people are experiencing a greater degree of fear for our nation and for their safety than ever before. In the last week, I have witnessed a few reactive behaviors that are not going to serve us through this time. If we don’t stop ourselves from practicing these behaviors, we are in danger of pursuing short-sighted strategies that end up preserving the status quo, rather than taking advantage of this moment to push us forward toward a greater force of woke people standing for justice.
Image from Taro Taylor – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tjt195/30916171
The concept of leadership has been undergoing an evolution. In this “network age” there appears to be both an expanding appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership really must be much more of a shared endeavor.
In our collaborative consulting work at IISC, leadership (or what we often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole,” thinking expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, ecosystem, etc.) and paying attention to what will be required to ensure resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustainable benefit. In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall far short.
Network leadership is at best a dynamic, diverse, more decentralized and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Many of those with whom we partner at IISC understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them be more explicit about this by clearly delineating the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked change endeavor. Read More
“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming.”
– bell hooks
For the past month I’ve been in conversation with David Nee, former Executive Director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, to reflect on some of our shared experiences in advancing the Memorial Fund’s collaborative work for equity in the early childhood system in Connecticut. The impetus for these reflections was an invitation to co-author a blog post for a series on “network entrepreneurship” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The introductory post, written by Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer, is entitled “The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of.” While it is true that many of the leaders featured are not necessarily household names, this does not preclude focus on those with formal authority who are visible in their own respective domains. That said, emphasis is on what people often don’t see or appreciate about what these “network entrepreneurs” do, including making space for others (see this post for some of the key network and collaborative leadership roles that are not always appreciated). Read More
I sometimes use the metaphor of “fire tending” when talking aboutFacilitative Leadership, the approach to leadership and social change we here at IISC practice, model and teach. Facilitative Leadership is grounded in theethic of“creating and inspiring conditions for self-empowerment so that people can work together on a common goal.”It is a form of leadership, rooted ina series of connected and reinforcing practices, that increasing numbers of people, organizations and networks seem to be drawn to in this ever more complex, uncertain and dynamically interconnected world.
Thanks in part to the following inspiration from poet and professorJudy Sorum Brown, I invoke “playing with fire” as a way to think about ways of creating optimal conditions for collaborative change.Read More
I have had many conversations recently about network form and transition, all of which have me thinking of what we often talk about in our practice at IISC: balancing acts. The core approach that informs our work in the world is Facilitative Leadership, which strives to create and inspire the conditions for collaborative and net workthat yields greater, more sustainable and equitable change. In co-creating these conditions, as process designers, facilitators, trainers and coaches, we invoke a variety of practices and frameworks, each of which has its own dynamic range of considerations. Read More
I live in New England, where everything is under a thick blanket of snow, and the temperatures are in the single digits. Many forms of transportation have come to a full halt. And I still needed to get to New York to lead a Facilitative Leadership training! My train was very late, and I realized, I could fume and panic, but that isn’t likely to change the situation. (Tried that. Didn’t work.) Since leadership often means noticing and naming what is really happening right now, I decided to take a few moments to notice what this weather can teach me about leadership.