An analysis of power dynamics at work

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power and languageWith this post I want to open a reflection and a conversation, among other on issues of power and language in the working context. I will do so by analysing a real situation where I was directly involved. Hopefully this analysis will boost awareness-raising contributing to workers’ empowerment and eventually to build up efficient bottom-up protection mechanisms.

Just some days ago I received an email from the chief coordinator of a project I recently got involved in. This person wrote me to say that my performance was not what the coordinating team expected and needed and therefore my services were no longer needed.

The reasons given to motivate the sacking lacked a real foundation and moreover were a strategy to cover coordination errors and lack of competences. And yet this situation should be denounced as unfair treatment and a violation of workers’ rights the only action I undertook was to reply with another email giving my perspective of what happened.

But let me share with you some more details about the situation. In first place there was a total lack of communication from the coordinating team as they didn’t set up a meeting with me and my colleague (also him dismissed!) in order to clarify the expectations towards us and our role, how we would work together and specifically how we would all together co-facilitate a preparatory meeting involving other people. Interestingly the coordinating team (composed by a woman and a men) assumed the contract was clear on the tasks.

This idea totally disregards the principles of teamwork and communication that a good project coordinator should be acquainted with. It is obvious that without moments to create and develop a team, to get to know and to respect each other, to clarify roles, tasks and expectations, to build a common vision and a feeling of ownership, no endeavour can possibly be successful.

The result was that my colleague and I didn’t have a clear idea about what was expected from us and how the co-facilitation of the meeting should look like. Naturally the feedback we received in the first meeting proposed by the coordinating team (after one full working day) was already quite negative.

The coordinating team concluded that my colleague and I were not autonomous enough and therefore they would have needed to intervene too much in the project development, what would have been detrimental. I tend to agree with them in this point because without knowing clearly the roles and tasks, and more importantly without a real team feeling, it is quite understandable the need to constantly clarify and get the information that was lacking in first place. I am convinced that in this kind of situations the possibility for manipulation and unfair treatment is more likely, because there are not parameters to guide the process and those in power can easily determine a narrative of the facts in their favour.

This was exactly what happened, the coordinators used their position and power to influence the rest of the team by creating a narrative of incompetence and acting upon it, discharging my colleague and myself.

How often do we see this sort of situation happening in our workplaces and in working contexts in general? Language and narrative are powerful and those who master it can reach further in life.

Let’s consider for example someone who calls a colleague by his or her nickname. As we think of it contextually and symbolically and as we examine it semantically this nickname can contain several hidden significances. Despite its innocence in a familiar/private context this same nickname used in certain working milieus can shape disempowering dynamics. For instance it can be connoted with a child’s name, therefore implicitly giving this person less power, putting her or him in a lower level in the ‘knowledge and leadership hierarchy’, hence giving her or him a sense of helplessness and even a feeling of inability and inadequacy. On the other hand it can influence others’ perception and actions towards this person.

Another example is the lack of reference to people’s names and contributions (what is not said has a great importance). It can create a strong perception that these people were absent and/or that their contribution was worthless. And it generates feelings of insecurity and inability on those whose names were ignored, setting the ground for future dynamics that may be a real repetition of what was ‘told’ (psychological phenomenon known as self-fulfilling prophecy). Naturally this meaning must be analysed in the frame of a broader dynamic, as the same situation can assume different significances in different contexts.

I would like now to address conflict dynamics and its relation to power and participation. Conflict is the essence of development and change and whenever dealt with constructively it reveals a great opportunity to grow and move further. However this is not always the case as most people fear conflict, and therefore avoid it, due to its common association to violence and aggression.

In the case described above there was a conflict, which I would define as an inter-group conflict. There were two groups of people defined by their contractual roles, the coordinators and the employees, and the ‘issue’ of the conflict was ‘power’. However what I wanted to underline in this case is not the issue, as it can change as our understanding of the conflict dynamics evolves and as we get more information on the situation and parties involved. Instead I wanted to reflect on the ‘interests’ of the parties in conflict. Interests are very often hidden and they have a powerful role in the conflict and in its escalation, exactly because they are not explicit and yet they are what matters and should be addressed in order to reach a solution.

In the case I have been describing there were hidden interests that were not clear, interests that partly determined the situation as it happened. Interests can be perceived in the stories people tell, thus stories (again narrative and language) are a powerful channel that enables an increased understanding of others. Human beings are natural storytellers; we spend our lives telling stories, changing stories, creating stories that become real. And the stories told by the chief coordinator about the project were stories that revealed ambition, stories where I sensed a strong need for recognition through success.

These are, I would say, both very human and understandable motivations. Though the problem arises whenever personal interests determine the development and outcome of a common endeavour. And especially when is the leader who holds very personal and private interests he or she may adopt an autocratic leadership to ensure control of the situation, actions and opinions. Consequently participation and decision-making may be jeopardised and give rise to tokenism and other forms of fake participation (Roger Hart’s ladder of participation).

I am convinced the working sphere is full of situations like the one just described, and it is of utmost importance to be more aware of these dynamics. I strongly believe that the possibility of analysing and understanding what is going on underneath the surface, underneath what is being said and done, is empowering, because it gives a sense of control and it creates the ground for informed action. It gives the possibility to uncover manipulation and unfair treatment. And lastly it gives the chance to also use the power of language to create a fair and empowering narrative that influences other people creating a critical mass that in the future may be willing to take action.

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