Giving Your Power Away

lean in 500

Question: I keep hearing that women have to lean in more, that we’re giving our power away, we need to take ownership. When I took that advice, my boss said, “You need to be more diplomatic.” I wasn’t doing anything different from what I saw around me every day. Around here, you have to push hard or you’ll just get buried.

Yes it’s the Underdog Catch-22: speaking your truth only works if you’re not already from some marginalized group. Otherwise, they double down to keep you in your place!

In business, aggression directed downwards must be carefully disguised to avoid lawsuits and unexpected karate chops to the neck. In other areas of life, it’s a lot more blatant. The low man on the totem pole is never allowed the privilege of self-defense.

I have pondered many ages on why this is so. I found the answer in Keith Johnstone’s book “Improv” in his chapter on Status Games. Johnstone says that most human interactions involve contests of status, that this is built in to all social animals (even woodlice… who knew?), and that the see-saw principle ensures that whenever one person’s status goes up, the other person’s status goes down.

Furthermore, people are cheered when others are lowered – unless they personally identify with that person. High-status people need lower-status people around, but they can’t empathize with them. Not only that, but they want the low man to be happy about the situation!

(Hence the pernicious myth that slaves singing at their work means they’re happy and everything’s hunky dory …)

IMO, underdogs really have to turn the tables when the game is rigged. In business, most people don’t realize it’s a set-up, even the people perpetuating it. But pranking them, in a clever but not too hostile way, can sharpen both your wits and your survival skills.

Read Martha Langelan’s book “Back Off” for some great non-violent anti-harassment success stories. Totally inspirational!

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