Power Dynamics and Playing the Long Game

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in not only the performance potential of the human body but also the nature of power dynamics within social environments. These intricacies of influence are something I have written about previously in Conscious Coaching, and openly discussed in my courses as well. But with every passing year, I seem to excavate yet another layer of learning that leaves me hungry for a better understanding.

I believe my fascination with power truly started when I was hospitalized (don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with that story again).

It turns out a funny thing starts to happen when you’re forced to sit around in a small confined room all day with people you don’t know – you start to talk less and observe more. Between blood draws, meals, and group therapy sessions, I’d watch the nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, etc. who worked at the hospital debate who would take certain shifts, what patients “deserved” to be discharged and which one’s didn’t, who would be awarded certain privileges such as the ability to “exercise” with ankle weights for 30 mins, or go outside, and what medications they believe a patient should have to take. 

What was astonishing is how rarely these decisions were made with any sort of truly objective data.

Instead, the vast majority of these decisions were based on the healthcare practitioner’s perception of patient progress; more specifically, whether or not they viewed the patient as “agreeable,” “compliant,” or “challenging.” Sometimes it even had to do with a doctor wanting to “try” new anxiety or depression medication on a patient that had just come to market.

Oh, the adhesive nature of an agenda.

It was during these moments of observation were the words of the Greek philosopher Xenocrates truly struck home with me: “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.” If the musings of the ancient Greeks isn’t your style, I get it – let’s try the Notorious BIG’s phrasing: “Never let ‘em know your next move. Don’t you know Bad Boys move in silence and violence?” Stylistic preferences aside the point here is that if you want to better understand power dynamics then you need to understand this…

 

More effective leadership comes as a result of more effective listening and observation.

 

This is precisely why removing silos, or learning to bridge the gap between them in any high-performance setting is not about designing better “org charts” but rather about improving interpersonal skills and our understanding of the fluid and fickle nature of power.

Power comes in many forms (personal and positional for example), but all of them still rely on the development of skills related to influence. What is the skill? Robbins and Hunsaker, (2014) define it as a system of behavior that can be applied in a wide range of situations. Sounds like the performance realm to me! Within the world of coaching, we tend to forget that convincing others that there is a “better way” has less to do with education and more to do with the ethical use of persuasion.

Could part of this be because our current culture continues to overvalue the measurement of “things” while overlooking the importance of understanding people? Or is it our own hubris of thinking that because we interact with a wide range of people every day, and do our due diligence regarding continuing education that we have taken for granted the fact that communication is indeed a “skill” as defined above?

Let’s not forget that just because the vast majority of us are born with the ability to make an audible noise, this doesn’t mean we are also born with the capacity to spread a clear message. If history doesn’t convince you, the research should as it makes it clear that social activity of ANY kind is first and foremost a goal-directed behavior (Hargie, 2017). Furthermore, if we are spending more time researching processes than we are researching perception then we are continuing to create a wider chasm between our ability to communicate clearly.

Perception isn’t just a central theme of skilled interaction, it is the glue that holds the entire process together.

Yes, what I am telling you is the same thing I have been trying to say for years – the future of our field, and coaching in general, is dependent on our ability to get out of our own way by finally realizing that more neatly designed “systems” based processes, while important, are never going to replace people who understand not just the moves that are being made, but the nature of the people who are making them begin with.

Observe. Absorb. Adapt. Apply. These are the pillars of a more “conscious” approach to leadership over the long-term.

 

 

References:

Hargie, O. (2017). Skilled interpersonal communication: Research, theory and practice. London: Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor et Francis Group. 

Robbins,S. and Hunsaker, P. (2014) Training in Interpersonal Skills: TIPS for Managing People at Work, 6th Edition. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education.

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