The Power Balance

Posted on March 7, 2008 by

Author: Tree Bressen
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #138

Q: We keep hearing from the same voices over and over in our meetings. Some of these people are founders, some are members who’ve been around longer than others, and some are highly verbally confident members. It seems to me that they have more power than others in our meetings. What can we do about this?
Caroline Estes responds:
This situation illuminates a basic misunderstanding about the nature of coming to agreements.
As a facilitator, it is important to remember the two requirements for healthy decision-making: democracy and egalitarianism. The first requires that everyone has a voice, and the second requires an equal amount of influence in a decision.
The problem is how to give wisdom and knowledge and facts a proper place in the discussion. One of the techniques is to make sure that no one speaks twice until everyone who wants to has spoken.
Oftentimes those who have been founders or are very articulate have (in their opinion) more history and knowledge than others. However, “pearls of wisdom” can also come from those who are either new or quiet. The job of the facilitator is to balance all of these offerings in a respectful, democratic, and equal way.
Tree Bressen responds:
In my opinion, there are basically four things you can do about it:
1. Invitation. As facilitator (or facilitative participant), directly invite quieter voices to speak up, either all at once (“Would anyone who hasn’t spoken yet like to add anything?”) or to specific individuals (“Sarah, it looks like you might be sitting on something. Do you have any thoughts you want to share at this time?”).
2. Change formats. Instead of whole-group discussion, shift to small groups (two to five people) for all or part of an agenda item. Or try drawing pictures, having a go-round where everyone gets a turn, or any of more than two dozen formats outlined on my website at /B20-formats.html.
3. Create a feedback loop. Ask for a volunteer to keep track of how often each person speaks, then post a chart at the end as part of evaluating the meeting. You might even post the chart again at the beginning of the next meeting as a gentle reminder. You might also try privately interviewing some of the quieter folks to find out their perceptions of the meetings, as they are likely to have valuable insights for the group.
4. Make your peace with it. Recognize that there will always be differences in how comfortable people are speaking in front of a group, and that maybe it’s OK if everyone’s speaking time is not exactly equal. Some of the quieter people likely have power in other ways outside of meetings. And i have yet to witness a group of people with no power differences.
Assuming your group has established a basic sense of safety in the meetings (for example, avoiding put-downs or sarcastic tones), then i suggest that it’s more helpful to emphasize supporting the quieter voices to speak up than to squelch the enthusiastic energy of the more actively-contributing members.
Beatrice Briggs responds:
Your observation is correct: some people do have more power, even in communities that espouse egalitarian values. In his book, Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege and Success, Art Kleiner brilliantly describes the universal phenomenon of informal power structures that set the agenda and influence key decisions in organizations of all kinds and sizes. Recognizing the existence of a “Core Group” in your community is an essential first step toward understanding the complex dynamics at work.
The next step is to identify who the members of the Core Group are, remembering that they are not necessarily part of the formal hierarchy. Here are some questions to get you started.
•Who are the people with the power to get things done even if it means bypassing the usual decision-making processes?
•Who has the power to stop something from happening?
•Who are the “heroes”—the celebrities about whom stories are told?
•Who gets paid the most? Receives special privileges or benefits?
•Who is identified as the intellectual/moral/emotional heart of the group?
•Under pressure, whose agendas are the most likely to prevail?

Start to study the characteristics and principles of your Core Group. What do they stand for? What values do they practice? Are they committed to the community’s best interests? Not all Core Groups are toxic. In fact, great communities are created by great Core Groups.
Finally, observe the degree to which the rest of the community seeks (often unconsciously) to please the Core Group members. Note the tendency to make decisions on the basis of what others perceive that the Core Group wants or needs. In this sense, the Core Group is a collective invention, emerging from the “hive mind” of the community.
Interestingly, Kleiner notes that “the less hierarchical and more fluid an organization is, the more influence the Core Group has. In a tight hierarchy…there isn’t much complexity to deal with. But when everybody’s decision makes a difference, the Core Group becomes critically important. Otherwise, no one would get anything done.”
If, after careful study, you decide that you want to undertake the difficult and sometimes dangerous task of intervening to change the community’s decision-making dynamics, Kleiner recommends forming a Shadow Core Group. He provides many practical suggestions for how to proceed, concluding with these words: “[This path] is not for everyone, but if you truly want to make a better world, it may be the most highly effective way to proceed. If you make a better Core Group, you may engender a better organization—and that, in the end, may be the only way, these days, to make a better world.”
Laird Schaub responds:
They do have more power than others, and for reasons that make sense. That is, they have more influence over what others do and agree to by virtue of their experience and prior contributions, and because people tend to be influenced by articulation and confidence. In short, they have more “rank.”
Having said that, the underlying concern may be whether these folks have too much power. This is important and murky territory. The first step is getting the issue out in the open by explicitly discussing member perceptions of how power is distributed in your group and the degree of satisfaction with that distribution.
This is not a simple conversation and can be highly illuminating. For example, it is typical for those with more power to be less aware of it than those with less power. In addition, the distribution of power is to some extent situation-specific: a person may have considerable experience with one issue, and little or none with another.
Further, there may be significant variance in people’s perceptions of how much power each individual has. Have you ever witnessed an argument between two people where each strenuously claims to have less power than the other? The irony of this dynamic is that each is trying to get leverage on a current issue by claiming to have been the greater victim in the past. It’s an interesting game.
And it’s worse than that. The use of power can be assigned a position on a spectrum, where “Power Over” is at one end, and “Power With” is at the other. In cooperative groups, we are generally trying to promote a culture in which influence is used more in the sense of Power With—for the benefit of all (as opposed to Power Over, where influence is exerted to the benefit of some and at the expense of others).
There can be hell to pay when a person thinks they are using their power more on the Power With end of the spectrum and they are perceived by others to be operating more toward the Power Over end. To a large extent, the maturity of a cooperative group can be measured by how cleanly and openly they can have conversations about this particular gap of perception.
In thinking about how power relates to experience, it is a judgment call how much weight to give it. Those with more experience on an issue generally should be listened to carefully. Yet that doesn’t mean that alternative views cannot be entertained. The current situation may significantly differ from previous ones, and there may be doubts about whether the “right lessons” were learned from prior experiences.
While this may not help in the short run, some groups make a commitment to supporting people learning skills that the group relies on. In addition to enhancing member growth (valuable in its own right), this is an investment in a future where more people have experience in that area, thus flattening the distribution of rank.
On the matter of verbal facility, the water gets even muddier since there is no obvious correlation between articulation and wisdom. The fact that one can express an idea well does not necessarily mean that the idea is any good. In general, the sway of the “verbally confident” is greatest in open discussion, where there is the most room for them to maneuver. To level the playing field, you might consider wider use of formats that interrupt this dynamic—for example, small group breakouts (where there is more air time for everyone to share their views, and a strong voice can only influence a few at a time) or go-rounds (where everyone is guaranteed at least one turn to talk before anyone speaks twice).
Be careful though. These alternate formats tend to slow things down, and that can come at a different cost. Best, I think, is to mix it up and then to spend some time afterwards reflecting on how well the format served the group. Remember: the ultimate goal is not to get everyone to speak the same amount. It’s to have effective, unifying meetings, where the power is flowing With and not Over.

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