Now You're Playing With Power!

This is going to start out sounding religiousy, but stick with me if you’re not into that sort of thing.

In the October 2013 Christianity Today there’s an article about power that I found fascinating.

(You don’t need to read it to follow what I’ll be talking about.)

It starts out talking about the tiny hidden earpiece mics so many pastors wear now, and my eyes started rolling back in my head so far I could see my prefrontal cortex.  Oh God, not another Christian who’s going to nit-pick a  personal peccadillo and find some way to spin it into a terrible pedantic article.  Buuuut, it turns out that was just a metaphor for the real topic, which is our culture’s attitude toward power.  The kind one human has over another.  Andy Crouch points out that our modern western attitudes toward power are historically abnormal.  There’s a concept anthropologist Geert Hofstede called power distance.  And it is basically a gauge on how obvious a culture prefers that those in power display that power.  You know: big hats, tall feathers, rules like bowing or averting one’s eyes from the top dog.  In case you can’t tell, our culture is very low power distance.  We are uncomfortable with those in charge making it obvious.  We find it repulsive, boorish and arrogant.  Our Presidents wear essentially the same clothing as our used car salesmen.  Our pastors (In my branch of evangelical Christianity) wear jeans and tshirts when they preach.  And if you think about the parts of our culture that still hold to high power distance, such as the military, or older strains of religion, you’ll note that they do so based on adherence to tradition. But it’s not JUST tradition that keeps this high power distance in play.  There are advantages to making power obvious and known.  

Though even typing that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.  Almost like I said there were advantages to slavery or something.  But the point of this article is that as long as we are so power distance-averse, we are potentially squandering power that could be used for good.  And we are less likely to have checks and balances based on the power dynamics that exist. whether we are comfortable acknowledging them or not.  A good point Crouch makes (notice I didn’t call him Mr. Crouch, because that seems awkward to me.) is that the word ‘power’ has so many negative connotations now.  Many church leaders find cute neologisms to beat around the bush.  “We are all servant-leaders here.”  It’s not just churches.  They are just following broader cultural trends.

Our culture's attitudes toward power, or at least toward power's display, have shifted dramatically in a few generations. In the business world, the dress code of corporate leaders slid down a slippery slope from IBM's coat and tie, to Steve Jobs's turtlenecks, to Mark Zuckerberg's hoodie. America, today, is about as low power distance as it has ever been—and so is the American church.”

I think the software industry in particular has taken this zeitgeist as far as they can.  Valve software (Creators of the smash Half Life, Portal, and Left 4 Dead franchises as well as the behemoth online game platform Steam)  claim to have a “flat structure” with no titles.  Unsurprisingly, this does have it’s downsides, and fair share of detractors.

But the point is that they are trying their best to take this idea of low power distance to it’s logical extreme.  Everyone is equal.  No one is the boss.  What Jeri Ellsworth says on that podcast is essentially what Crouch is saying in this article.  The power still exists, and pretending it doesn’t can make a worse mess than making it clearly defined.  Crouch says:

Power is not healthier when it is invisible—it is just harder to make accountable and fruitful.”

The company I work at is definitely a low power distance place. Not as much as Valve, but the heart is still there.  Our leaders don’t have offices with doors.  They don’t dress in suites.  They sit with anyone and everyone, actually circulating through the various departments somewhat frequently.   I’m pretty sure anyone can walk up to our founder/president and have a casual chat.  And I have to say.. that is AWESOME.  Before I read this article I never noticed that I live in a society that valued equality over hierarchy.  And to the extent that I’ve thought about it peripherally, I NEVER would have thought that there’s any downside to that ordering of values.  But that last quote is really haunting to me.  I think that is because I’ve found that most of the times I hurt people, it’s because of something I just hadn’t thought about.

It’s the unexamined, the hidden, or the ignored parts of ourselves that can be the most damaging to others. And I’ve never stopped to think about the power I might have over others.  I always assumed I didn’t really have any.  I’ve never felt particularly powerful, influential, popular, etc.  But as I consider more carefully, I’m recognizing a whole web of power dynamics that our society is composed of.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m very aware of the ADVANTAGES I have as a White, Hetero, Christian, Middle-Class, North-American Male.  But I never saw that as power that I have over others.  I can’t make a non-WHCMCNAM do my bidding, or fire them, or take anything from them.  I know that I can contribute to, or fight against a general atmosphere of exclusion, and maybe taking part in that could contribute to policy changes of some institutions or what-have-you.  But that’s not the topic I’m thinking about now.  I’m talking about people I have direct power over.  

Power, to me, is clearly on a spectrum, and multi-faceted.  For instance, I have the slight power to influence an acquaintance about who they might vote for, or encourage them to give to a particular charity.  I have some little bit more power to influence my close friends about their values, or beliefs.  And I have quite a lot of power over the emotional state, the way time is spent, the outlook on life, etc. of my wife.  And even more power over my children to shape their views on morality, religion, philosophy, education, virtually everything in life.  That power diminishes pretty quickly, and I think my oldest son has purposefully chosen as much opposite as I tried to instill in him when he was young, but that’s whole ‘nother can of worms.  The point is that there is a whole world of dynamic power-plays happening all around us continually that I just haven’t thought about before.

I find this funny, because I can guarantee you that MOST people in the world are very aware of this embedded cultural language.  But because it goes unspoken, I just didn’t pick up on it. (Can you tell autism/aspergers runs in my family?)  It took a coincidental (or providential if you swing that way) confluence of nudges for me to even notice.  This article wasn’t enough.  The research I’ve been doing in feminism wasn’t enough.  Those laid the groundwork, and then a random conversation with a friend on the way home from work made the pieces fall into place.  We were talking about people who can’t take a joke.  The kind who get huffy and offended by everything.  I said I thought a part of it could be that it’s an incredibly easy way to gain power over another person.  If you’ve offended me, then you OWE me something.  Depending on the situation that could be anything from an apology to monetary recompense.  And that gives me some amount of power over you.  When I said that, it dawned on me that this kind of power transaction is happening all the time, and I’ve been oblivious to it.  

And so I’ll quote this again:

Power is not healthier when it is invisible—it is just harder to make accountable and fruitful.”

And so now I’m trying to be very careful.  Because I’m sure I’ve damaged relationships without realizing it.  Like the guy at Home Depot last weekend who almost took off my head with the 12 foot 2x4 over his shoulder as he blithely turned this way and that in a crowd.  Since my work environment is where I spend most of my life, and since the clarification of power is so anathema to our general company culture, I’m starting there.  Right now I think I’m around a 3 out of ten on the totem pole. Which is probably pretty sad considering I’ve been in this industry for 16 years, and at this company for 10.  I know I could be higher up if I really wanted to be.  I have the skill and intelligence to be, but never valued leadership enough to shape my outward appearance.  I think I get passed over because people don’t take me very seriously because I’m usually the class clown.  I’m willing to bet my apathy about promotion stems from this power issue. (Well, that and knowing that the higher I go the less art/design I get to do!)  

Right now I coordinate a team, which is kind of like being a leader.  But since I’m so enamored with small power distances like everyone else there, I’m never comfortable being CALLED a leader.  I love making decisions that shape the product we create, and having the power to push my vision, but I hate that I love that.  It seems dirty.  Oh, I DO know one thing that my very limited power gives me that IS a blessing to others.  I LOVE empowering those on my team to get THEIR ideas in the game.  One thing I think I’m pretty good at (which is a sure bet that means I’m terrible at it.) is the Hegelian synthesis.  Whether it’s philosophy, religion, politics, art or design, I really enjoy the process of grappling with a thesis, antithesis, and somehow wrangling a synthesis out of it.  So I THINK I’m pretty good at GENTLY guiding my team toward a common vision.  Not just one that works for ME, but one that is a synthesis of ALL of our sensibilities.  I never thought of that as exercising power.  But now I do.

Another thing sprang to mind just now.  There is a woman in our church who runs the benevolence ministry.  I never realized this, because she is one of the most gentle, caring, loving people I’ve ever met.  And she has tremendous power!  The networks she has built over the years that gives her the power to bring to bear on any problem imaginable is incredible.  And she is indiscriminate with it, helping ANYONE who asks.  Even people who hate our church.  I’ve been called by her to help single moms move, to clean disgusting messes, help cook for giant crowds, etc. and in turn she called on others to help me and my wife have a BEAUTIFUL wedding for under $300 since we were next to bankrupt thanks to my ex wife.  Again, this idea that a network is powerful must be mind-numbingly obvious to most people.  But it’s a revelation to me right now.  

There’s a lot more to think about, and I think mostly a lot to observe in my every-day interactions with this new lens.  I still wouldn't’ want to work in a more hierarchical business, or go to a more hierarchical church, but now I’m seeing this nuance, and balance that can be striven for.  We don’t need tall hats or bars on our shoulders to indicate rank in order to be more aware of the power dynamic that exists in our relationships.  


Lyndon Cozzutto said…
If you really want to know who the real leaders are, find out who it is that the people follow. Often it is not the person in power that actually controls the rudder of the ship.
Chris Elliott said…
A way of considering power is simply the transference of our free will to another. That free will can be taken, given, or simply not exercised and in that way results in another gaining control and thus power. Consider that in the workplace you are offering your free time (will) in trade for money, and submitting to whatever authority is making this deal.
I would say that part of the reason why many of us don't overtly feel a sense of powerlessness in our own lives is the fact that those of us who are educated and middle class have far fewer limitations then a person in a far less fortunate situation. Take for example the fact that if you were unhappy with your job, you could leave and most likely find another that you maybe happier with. Consider that situation as a very rare one because for most people in the world it is probably not nearly that easy or possible. That is power that we have in our lives that any do not. I would say that it is actually our greater sense of power that blinds us to the far more common sense of powerlessness that most feel.

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