Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 1: Yourself

Join Laird at the 2017 National Cohousing Conference where he will present several sessions, including Power and Leadership.

I'm starting a blog series spotlighting the concept of power in cooperative culture. In the context of group dynamics—my main arena—power has to do with how people interrelate, but I want to start with the individual before interactions begin.

In physics, power is defined as work accomplished over time, or force multiplied by velocity. In sociology, the lens I'm using in this series, I define power as influence, the ability to get others to agree to something or to do something.

I've chosen to examine the individual's relationship to power through a series of questions, the answers to which can help a person sort out where they stand in relationship to power in any given situation.

1. Do you want power?
While that may be an easy "yes" for some, it's an easy "no" for others, with plenty of anguish in between whenever the answer isn't obvious. Yes, it's a opportunity to contribute and to influence results, but the obverse of that coin is that it's also an opportunity to mess up, and not everyone is comfortable with that weight on their shoulders.

Knowing that you can never know all factors that bear on a situation (much less what weight to give those factors), when do you know enough to be willing to act? This can be subtle. Perhaps it's not so difficult to assess retrospectively, but it can be chaotic and challenging (even paralyzing) in the dynamic moment—which can be heavily freighted with consequences if you get it wrong. The pressure of the moment, coupled with the uncertainty, can be overwhelming.

Even if you are clear that you have power, care about the outcome, and know what you think, you may be hesitant to exercise your power.

2. How can you assess what power you have?
—Your power is group specific. What is your history with that particular group? Has anything happened lately that would suggest a shift in power?
—How persuasive are you as a communicator?
—Do you have background advantages on the issue at hand? (In addition to being group specific, power is situation specific—you may know electrical wiring, but not plumbing; you may be a logistical whiz, yet poor at negotiating.)
—Though others cannot give you power (influence), they can give you authority; or they can abdicate their own power, leaving the field to you, which changes the calculus. (Whether you want power under either of those circumstances is another question.)

3. How do you get power?
In healthy cooperative groups you can get power, or accrue it, through a wide variety of ways:
o demonstration of relevant skill
o display of confidence
o reputation transmitted through respected sources who vouch for your skill or wisdom
o demonstration of being able to accurately assess what's best for the group (as distinguished from what's best for you)
o showing that you're sensitive enough to frame comments in ways that acknowledge the interests of others
o history of on-time performance
o history of following through on commitments
o reputation for coming through in the clutch
o not needing personal recognition
o readily crediting others for their contributions
o not being quick to assign blame
o owning your mistakes
o being open to new ideas
o seeing the good intent in others (especially those with whom you disagree)
o reputation for being able to bridge disparate views
o known to be able to receive critical feedback with grace and openness
o being explicitly authorized to make decisions that are binding on the group

You can also acquire power in unhealthy or unearned ways:
o privilege
o friendships with powerful people
o family ties (power through legacy)
o as a donor (money talks)
o as a martyr (who works too much and expects power as the payoff)
o brashness (tough skin; others will back down before you will)
o sarcasm (intimidation)

4. What does it take to be willing to use your power?
o a reasonable assessment that you know enough about the issues being discussed
o an issue you care enough about
o do you need it to be likely that you'll be right?
o sufficient courage to risk being wrong, to have incomplete or faulty thinking exposed, or to be found in opposition to others (Hint: if you have to be right, lay down your lapel mic now and back out of the room)
o strong enough core (sense of self) that you'll be OK even if your pitch is ineffective (you have less power than you thought) or your advocacy turns out badly for the group
o can you admit doubt to yourself; can you admit doubt to others?
o does your willingness to use power depend on how it was gained?
o does your willingness to use power depend on how you think others will treat you if they don't like the results?
o does your willingness to use power depend on the media of communication available to you?
o does your willingness to use power depend on who you expect to disagree with you?
o does your willingness to use power depend on the magnitude of the stakes?
o does your willingness to use power depend on the likelihood of push back or resistance to what you'll advocate?

5. How do you know that you're using power in a good way?
A lot of times you can't be sure. While few of us use power with intent to put one over on others, it can certainly land that way at times (and be terrifically embarrassing). Why? Perhaps because you didn't think though the consequences as deeply as you might have; perhaps because there were unknown factors at play, skewing the results; perhaps because you didn't know what everyone wanted and were working from faulty premises. Shit happens.

6. What are the likely consequences?
With power, feedback loops tend to be fairly direct. If the people you've influenced believe you used power well (for the benefit of all), you'll be paid in kind. That is, you'll have more power in the future. The reverse is also true. Note that you can veer into the ditch in two ways: a) what you advocate is perceived to benefit some at the expense of others (or substantially favors some more than others); or b) your even-handed suggestion turns out badly for all.