Sharing Power


Question: I keep hearing about “giving your power away” and “boundary violations” but isn’t the goal of a team to share power and knowledge? How can you share without opening some boundaries?

The sharing of power is such a vast topic that this humble blog post can do little more than scratch the surface. We could say power is a transaction, with three basic types: 1) exchange of power 2) sharing or pooling of power and 3) taking power away.

Every human interaction involves power. Power can mean many things: physical prowess, having or allowing access to key survival resources such as food, or technical mastery over the physical world (discovering fire). Possessions, including your own body, are stand-ins for power, which is why groping someone on the bus is often viewed as a power thing. Power can also refer to “social status” or “permission to act”. Words like “empowerment” imply that we are all masters of our own destiny if we would only wake up and realize it.

Getting robbed is a power transaction where someone is taking your power (possessions) away. Voluntarily agreeing with someone who claims that you are an inferior being is giving your power away. Pranking someone on April Fool’s Day and then having them one-up you is a power exchange.

So… how about power sharing, especially in a group? Cliche or not, the whole really can be greater than the sum of its parts. Giving, trusting, and lowering of boundaries are all necessary components of this. It’s not instantaneous, either. It takes some time to build up ease and trust so that power can freely flow. Disruptions such as high turnover or unilateral decisions can poison the well pretty quickly. This applies equally within work teams and adult roommate situations, to name just 2.

How can you share without opening some boundaries? Well, the key is “opening” not “erasing”. Even “blurring” can lead to ambiguity, because it creates a false sense of equality where none actually exists. The best power-sharing groups are small, and boundaries consist of clear rules as well as a respect for personal privacy.

A well-functioning team should be based on guidelines similar to these:

  1. Group should have a clear purpose with limited scope and some agreed-upon structure.
  2. Circumscribe the times and places where power sharing can occur.
  3. I was going to say “consensual” but that can be tricky. See below.
  4. Avoid cults of personality and charisma junkies.
  5. Check in every so often with yourself. A three-part question might be: What am I putting into this? What am I getting out of it? What difference am I making?
  6. Basic rules of decency and respect are strongly advised.
  7. People have the option to exit the group at any time.

Consensuality is important, but complex. What about fraternity hazing? Well… the pledges ASKED to be in the fraternity, and the fraternity AGREED to accept them. There is some duty of care here, but in theory, by asking for admittance, the pledges have agreed to go along with all sorts of unknown humiliations.

Even the Prince of Darkness is bound by consensuality. In folklore, deals with the Devil are often described as a written contract to be signed, or sometimes as a verbal wish. “I’ll trade my soul for eternal youth” is one standard transaction, and of course when the time comes for the person to give it up, they regret it! But, the point is, they knew at the time that this was the deal, nobody forced them to sign, and now no Higher Power will protect them. If the Devil went around fleecing little old ladies, it wouldn’t be fair (it would be Wells Fargo).

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