In this age of engagement, power is one area trainers tend to avoid because it may raise sensitive issues underlying the organizational culture that has evolved. There are scores of best-sellers about engagement.
However, there is a lack of productive discourse around issues of power and privilege. Considerable attention is being paid to the importance of diversity and inclusion in organizations, yet raising issues regarding power may be seen as a threat by those who benefit from existing power or privilege dynamics.
AGENTS AND TARGETS
The discussion of power can be a valuable part of any leadership, management, or teambuilding program. This topic is most likely covered in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.
A training program that addresses the issue of power can benefit both those with relative power, as well as those lacking power. The distinction between the two groups often is referred to as “Agent” and “Target.” Agent refers to members of dominant social groups privileged by birth or acquisition, who knowingly or unknowingly exploit and reap unfair advantage over members of the target groups. Target refers to members of social identity groups who are discriminated against, marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, and exploited by an agent group or system of institutions.
Facilitators who wish to address power in training programs must be comfortable with, and experienced in, addressing the feelings that come with confronting participants’ notions of identity, privilege, race, and sexuality.
STRATEGY 1: STARPOWER
There are many strategies to train about power. Let’s explore two strategies I have employed in corporate settings to create more inclusive and equitable organizations.
The first approach is the simulation called StarPower.
StarPower illustrates how power affects performance, motivation, and behavior. In diversity training, this simulation provokes discussion surrounding bias and helps examine how power manifests itself within a diverse organization.
A well-run program on power using this activity will help participants:
- Understand that power must have a legitimate basis in a team, an organization, or a community to be effective.
- See and feel the effect of disempowerment and create an awareness of the need for empathy.
- Realize that sharing power can increase power in a team or organization, while hoarding or abusing power can diminish it.
- Understand the effect organizational and societal systems can have on power.
- Be aware of how tempting it is for well-intentioned people to abuse power and the consequences of abusing power.
- Understand that there are different kinds of power.
- Personally experience and discuss the excitement of power and the despair of powerlessness.
In this simulation, which can take from 1 to 2.5 hours, there is a presumption of working on a competitive activity whereby each individual has an equal chance of winning, while, in fact, some have unseen advantages that allow them to win and thereby “gain” more power.
After the simulation, participants can discuss the use and abuse of power at work. The resulting experience can strengthen interpersonal relationships and teams and help members of the groups understand their reaction to authority, competitive situations, communication, etc.
Some of the conclusions that may be raised are:
- To change behavior, it may be necessary to change the systems in which that behavior occurs. Groups then can brainstorm which systems are at work that may be a barrier to a more equitable workplace. For example, IBM realized women were not being promoted to executive levels because many women had not been awarded patents. IBM created a program for women on how to apply for and attain a patent. This systematic change led to more than 60 patents and many more women being promoted to executive positions. Participants in these programs can identify hidden systemic processes that inhibit inclusion at work.
- Each of us may be more vulnerable to the temptation to abuse power than we realize. Those with power and privilege often cannot see their advantages and how they can be abused. During the activity, non-verbal behavior may occur such as the powerful teams pulling their chairs close together, laughing devilishly, and being unusually animated, while the groups without power often seem withdrawn and apathetic. The clear implication is that we must not only try to avoid abusing power ourselves, but also guard against its abuse in our organizations.
- Few people are likely to participate in an endeavor if they feel powerless. When experiencing powerlessness directly, people see the behavior of those who are reacting to powerlessness, real or imagined, with a new degree of understanding. In this era of engagement surveys, this activity can raise critical issues as to why some employees feel alienated at work.
- What seems fair to those in power is not likely to seem fair to those who are out of power. Even when those who gained power unfairly realized the game was “fixed” so they could win, they often did not understand why those without power were so upset. It is this discrepancy that often creates serious communication gaps within teams and organizations.
STRATEGY 2: POWERFUL STEPS
The second exercise, which is called Powerful Steps, involves participants lining up shoulder to shoulder with room for them to move forward and backward. The participants move forward or backward based on their responses to privilege factors.
For example, participants are told to move forward if their parents helped pay for college or move backward if they had to pay themselves or did not go to college; move forward if their family could always provide enough food growing up or take a step back if they didn’t always have enough food; move forward if their family owned their house; move back if they rented. Other factors can include race, gender, physical ability, educational opportunities, museum visits, and others relevant to the group.
In the end, those most privileged should be in the front relative to the others. Participants then can discuss: what they observed; how they felt during the exercise; how the exercise reflects their reality; which items are most meaningful; how privilege impacts biases; and other topics of significance to the team, organization, or engagement at work. Thought-provoking questions should tie in to daily work-related scenarios.
This exercise may evoke strong emotional responses, so facilitators need to be aware of the risks and be able to create a safe space for sensitive discussions. Participants’ buy-in is vital. Participants should be given equal time to express their own personal reactions as part of the debriefing. This exercise is ideal in an executive/ managerial off-site retreat, whereby participants may feel more inclined, (i.e., safe), to offer their true voice outside of the office setting.
Programs focusing on any of the dimensions of diversity where there is a power dynamic should address these issues if fundamental changes are to take place.
Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at email@example.com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.