Last year, I was invited to facilitate a day of learning for a learning organization that had been together for close to 40 years.
I was set to walk into a room of people I had never met, who have known each other for decades, had already been together for a whole day and were deep into their discussion.
So I was bracing myself for the feeling of being an outsider.
It’s nothing new. I have often walked into boardrooms to meet with leadership teams only to find them deep in conversation, with very few people looking up, and even fewer extending a greeting.
I was amazed by the welcoming and friendly behavior of everyone in last week’s group. Not only did people acknowledge my presence, but many crossed the room to introduce themselves.
They interrupted their conversations to welcome me. They asked me about my trip. They inquired about my comfort: did I need anything? Did I find my room OK?
Small stuff. But huge stuff. If you’ve ever been a stranger anywhere, you know that it’s the small stuff that makes a world of difference. This was a great example of how to create a sense of inclusion. And of using power to do so.
In talking to people about power, I’ve found that one of the most challenging things is to get others to recognize their power. Pointing out someone else’s power? Easy. Practically an automatic reflex.
But pointing to our own power? “What power?” people ask. “I don’t have any power.” It’s just so much easier to recognize other people’s power than it is to see our own.
What’s the explanation for this? I’m sure there are many. One of the reasons I explore in my book is that low rank experiences have a more ‘limbic’ effect — we’re primed to detect threat for evolutionary purposes.
So a low rank state, relative to someone or something else, is going to have more salience, more emotional impact, and thus grab our attention.
Another possible explanation is that we tend to conceptualize power relations hierarchically, like a ladder. And on a ladder, there is always someone above us.
You climb a ladder with your head up, looking at the feet of the person above you, and all the people above them. And it’s easy to forget that someone else is a rung beneath you, studiously focused on your feet.
And by thinking in terms of hierarchies, we almost always focus on positional or social identity power. But in fact, some of the most widely suffered power dynamics, as well as the greatest acts of power, have nothing to do with position or social identity.
These are the more subtle, less formal powers we all have at our disposal … yet they’re often neglected, forgotten, or minimized.
Last week’s group succeeded in welcoming me and creating an inclusive environment. In short, they made me feel at home. How? By using their personal and informal powers, leveraging their own insider status in the group to make a newcomer feel welcome.
Remember what it’s like to be a stranger and you recognize right away how important informal power is — the power of belonging to a tribe, of being an insider, someone who feels comfortable and accepted. And they used their own sense of comfort to extend that feeling to me.
[By the way, the subject of another post no doubt, but welcoming strangers is so central to human culture that it’s a key precept in almost every one of the world’s religions.]
But it all starts with realizing that, yes, we all have power and then learning to recognize what they are.
When we fail to recognize our powers, we fail to see the impact our own behavior has on others.
We don’t see that we always have at least some kind of power that can make a difference, whether we use it or not.
If you can speak up easily, are extroverted, and have no trouble expressing yourself, then you have a personal power of social boldness.
You can use that power to interrupt others and to make sure your ideas are heard. But you can also use it to advocate for others for whom speaking up does not come easy.
Do you have expertise? Are you knowledgeable? If so, do you use it to make sure the team is making the best, most informed decisions? Do you share your knowledge with others by mentoring and coaching others, or do you simply use it to influence decisions for your own gain?
Some powers are less obvious, like the power of belonging. Perhaps you have seniority in a group or community, or you have an extensive and powerful network. People like you and they are motivated to help you out. Do you use that power to make a seat at the table for others, or do you use it only to further your own agenda?
To use your power for good, and to create the powerful kind of inclusion that the group I visited created for me, we must first make ourselves aware of what powers we have.
We are all superheroes with superpowers. All we have to do is look within, dig deep, and find the special blend which we can use for good.
So go ahead, take an inventory of your powers. Ask yourself where, how, and what kind of power you have.
Do you value it? Do you use it? If so, how? Ask others what powers they see in you. You may be surprised. Chances are you’re more powerful than you think.