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.

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.