Five Tips for Facilitating Power Dynamics

My last remaining client is a small organization having a collective conversation about the culture it wants to have moving forward. One question that has come up repeatedly is: How can you have open, authentic, courageous conversations with your boss (or your boss’s boss) in the room?

As is often the case with my work, this is both a long-term question for the organization and an immediate process challenge, because we want the staff to be able to have an open, authentic, courageous conversation about this very topic with their bosses (and their bosses’s bosses) in the room. Not surprisingly, this has been a difficult challenge right from the start.

We’ve divided the entire organization into working groups of eight people, each representing different functions and levels across the organization. Each group has one member of the top-level leadership team participating. In other words, there are groups with young, administrative assistants in the room with C-level leadership and every position in-between, and we’re asking them to have open, sometimes difficult conversations in their groups around culture. Crazy, right?! How is it possible to have a safe conversation this way?

Furthermore, we’re not facilitating these conversations ourselves. Each group has a staff facilitator, someone who has demonstrated a proclivity for this role, but is not necessarily experienced at it. Rebecca Petzel and I are coaching the facilitators along the way, but we’re not actually in the room for these conversations.

These facilitators have been doing a great job so far, but some of them have found it challenging to deal with this power dynamic in the room. Several people have suggested removing the top-level leadership team from these conversations, something we considered from the start and something that we may still do.

Regardless of what we choose to do, the bottom line is that managing power dynamics is a fundamental, pervasive challenge, and that the only way to deal with it is to practice.

It’s not always about structural power — having your boss or a funder or a parent in the room, for example. Power comes in many forms. There’s relational power, for example. “Jane isn’t C-level, but she’s tight with the CEO, and I might as well be talking directly to the CEO when she’s in the room.”

Or there’s hierarchy that emerges from expertise. For example, I’ve seen many groups and even whole organizations held hostage by the one geek in the room, because everyone else is intimidated by that person’s knowledge about technology.

In many of these cases, the power structures are actually appropriate. If I have to get my car fixed, I’d better be listening and — to some extent — deferring to people who know about and understand cars better than me. I may not be paid to think broadly or deeply about strategy, but the CEO is, and so it makes sense for me to defer to the CEO to some extent. Then again, there are also studies that show that we defer authority to the people who simply talk more than anyone else, regardless of the substance of what they are actually saying.

The key question in all of these cases is, how much is the right amount? How do I engage with the power in the room while keeping my own power intact?

I decided to consult with Kristin Cobble to help me think through some of the specific challenges my client is facing. We had a fantastic tactical conversation, but we also talked a lot about the issues at a higher level, drawing from our previous experiences. There were so many great nuggets from our conversation, I asked her if she would have the conversation a second time with me and let me video it. Here it is:

Here are five key takeaways:

  1. We discussed a lot of tools and techniques, but at their core are the following principles: Name the dynamic, and encourage the group to reflect on it. Sometimes, naming the dynamic is enough. Other times, you need to find ways to break the dynamic in order to enable people to have this conversation.
  2. In our conversation, we used the words “facilitator,” “dominator,” and “dominated” to describe the different roles that emerge. I wish we had use David Kantor’s language instead: “observer,” “mover,” and “follower.” What you can do depends very much on the role you are playing.
  3. So much of your ability to practice naming and breaking these dynamics effectively, regardless of role, depends on your own self-awareness. This is where the type of coaching that Kristin practices is extremely helpful. Ed Batista, an executive and leadership coach, has a nice blog about this kind of work.
  4. The fallback solution for situations like this is to remove the power from the room. That can be a short-term bandage, but it won’t lead to success in the long-term. There are lots of great practices for breaking up the dynamic while still keeping everyone in the room.
  5. That said, there are no magic solutions. This stuff is hard, and it’s fundamental. It requires constant intention, attention, and practice. It’s inherently  awkward, uncomfortable, and messy. Trying to circumvent the mess will lead to failure. You have to dive right in, and you can’t be hard on yourself when it’s painful. If it’s not painful, you’re not doing it right.