On power in practice

Tentative thoughts from a workshop on radicalising our OD practice

How do we actually experience power in the workplace? We sit there in a mesh of power, which courses through the threads of our ceaselessly shifting pattern of connectivity and relationship with other subjects who occupy the warp and weft of the fabric of organisational life.

This piece takes another look at power and is drafted off the back of a rich conversation that I enjoyed with a group of people around organisational philosophy and development practice. This took place on 2 November 2021 and was the first of seven workshops that open up a space in order to explore the development of a more radical OD practice.

Rethinking power

Like rocks in a fast running stream, we are constrained and shaped by the rush of the water – and, at the same time, channel that water by our very presence alongside other rocks in that river. This is the reality of power – and it stands in opposition to the traditional notion of it as a social resource, possessed by one individual to the detriment (and at the expense) of all others. Instead, it resides in the context in which we find ourselves – and that context is defined by our constellation with others.

As in the Foucauldian notion of power, the river shapes the rocks – and the rush of the water over and past each of them adjusts that flow for other rocks around them. In reality, of course, this is a more constantly mutable relational effect, constantly shifting and changing in terms of the respective positions of all of the rocks in the river. And the river is not extrinsic to the rocks: it is implicit to their “rockness”.

This slightly more nuanced perspective on power as a relational phenomenon that is not merely a negative force but can also be productive, in terms of our subjectivity. It does however become distorted when hierarchy seeks to pull power over itself like a child covering themselves with an especially comforting blanket. Hierarchy seeks to colonise power…but power proceeds regardless of who sits at the top of the pile, in the intrinsic way that is outlined above.

Traditional views of power in organisations

Much of the accepted and unchallenged thinking about power in the workplace is shaped by a very traditional schema that derives from the work of French and Raven (1959). In typical style, they felt compelled to generate a taxonomy of power, as this matrix indicates.

This, then, is a largely a positional model as opposed to a relational picture of power in social settings. It leads us down a practice cul-de-sac wherein – both personally and professionally – the only way in which we can engage with power is by moving in and out of the sorts of roles that one can categorically derive from this model. The focus is almost exclusively on the idea of “power over”, as opposed to the more creative and collective approach that encompasses “power with” and “power within” (and which can be found in literature that derives from the praxis perspective of activism). This has led to a careful consideration of how one might undertake a rich and textured power analysis in order to support organisational critique.

The traditional and quite instrumental approach to power is founded as well on the idea that power proceeds from authority, which is allocated from within a corporate context. This perspective owes a great deal to the work of Max Weber – and finds interesting expression in the work of Goldhamer and Shils (1939) where they explore (in a somewhat simplistic and unsophisticated way) the linkage between power and status.

Moreover, it generates something of a conceptual impasse, wherein authority derives from the organisation – and attends to the position into which people are appointed. Hence, that power can never be truly seen to be illegitimate unless the interlocutor is minded to contest the legitimacy of the organisation in itself.

Interrogating power in context

A different approach, then, is to inspect power close up in terms of the river in which we find ourselves, to gain insight into how it shapes us in its flow…and, as OD practitioners, to acknowledge how that flow works through us and acts on others. One participant expressed this exquisitely off the back of a conversational exercise that we undertook in the space, namely,

We both recognised a tension between being an OD person within ‘the system’ and at the same time not wanting to be an agent of the status quo.

Whilst another nudged us to recognise,

The multitude of different power relationships that underpin OD practice.

These are important observations, which enable us to frame our practice through a more critical lens. Traditionally, OD takes a notionally neutral perspective in terms of its practical action. It decorates itself with a number of espoused values, such as that it seeks to be a field of work that is humanistic, democratic, and progressive. Declaring an adherence to these values and trying to use them as design principles for our work simply cannot efface the fact that our activity sits in that context of organisational power – and that as a result much of our work is undertaken in the flow of a powerful river.

The relational power in the spaces where OD practitioners work – whether we are consulting internally or externally – acts upon us in terms of defining us and circumscribing our scope of activity…and we in turn act as conduits for that power, impacting those with whom we work.

In this regard, a participant explicitly declared the following, a helpful guide for those who wish to reflexively challenge what they do, how they do it, and where it gets done:

We are keen to explore the issues “below the surface” of OD practice, which are often present but not named.

This naming, of course, as suggested here, is an act of power. The productive qualities of power in our slightly more nuanced conceptualisation, in terms of the subjectification and shaping of self that occurs in this context, can be observed where candid discussion – in the service of explicit naming – exposes the hidden common sense and commonplace precepts that undergird our practice. (More negatively, of course, the intimate relationship that exists in respect to the Foucauldian concatenation of power/knowledge and the naming tends towards a definitional distinction between normalcy and – off the back of that – Otherness.)

From reflection to action

If we subscribe to the monolithic idea of power – a bounded resource that, in being possessed by one agent, is therefore unavailable to others – we constrain ourselves in terms of what actions we might take – personally and professionally – to explore and challenge power. Or – as some in our field opine – we should seek to grab some of that resource for ourselves, in order to shore up our status and positions. A number of the participants helpfully outlined the challenges around a more meaningful engagement with the issue, such as,

Power seems full of contradictions.

The power of looking at power in the here and now.

[There is] The feeling of constraint in practice

Opening up to listen to difference is hard – it disrupts us and we don’t like this…

Now, these are important steers in terms of what we should have at the forefront of our minds as we seek to grope our way towards an organisational practice that is authentically engaged with the notion of power (as opposed to one that assumes a performative relation to the topic, through the mobilisation of ideological sleights such as “empowerment” and “involvement”). In this, we are holding up a mirror to the system in which we work and ourselves as human agents and practitioners. But the fundamental awkwardness in this was pithily described by one of the participants,

There is the tension again…especially for OD people: we are paid by the very power systems [to whom] we are in the business of revealing their power dynamics…

Two crucial aspects emerged as a result of the conversation: first, someone nudged the group to attend to the experience of voice and power in the context in which they presently found themselves. This important prompt takes the whole issue of reflection – so often a mournful and purposeful looking back on past events so that “learning” might be forcibly extracted from them – away from the standard notion of time in organisational settings, where we are forced to see the past as a dark graveyard of mistakes and ceaselessly “thrown” into the future, whence lies betterment and “progress”. (Leaders ceaselessly promote this stunted perspective on human work, oftentimes because it privileges the ephemeral and unessential activities that are often seen to define them, such as “visioning”, strategy, and objective setting – all of which are pitched into the realm of the future.)

The vital element – and the most productive in terms of appreciating the experience of human existence – remains the present, the place where we reside and make a multitude of decisions (and, more importantly, myriad tacit micro-decisions) – and where our presence shapes the context which, in turn, shapes our presence. Indeed, it is useful at this point to remind us of the philosophical understanding of the specious present, which intimates that the sense of being in the moment might reasonably be said to carry with it a sense of smooth and unbroken duration that connects the very recent past and the exact present – which, in turn, opens it up as a space in which we might usefully be reflexive, a topic to which we turn through an upcoming practice workshop.

In this respect, the challenge was to think about our individual voice and our existence in that specific flow of power in the precise context of the development meeting in which we were all present at that time, which offers us the following basic axiom, namely that,

Power cannot be seen to be an abstract thing, from which we can achieve distance in order to develop personal insight and richer understanding. It is something in which we are personally and professionally immersed – and hence worthy of our moment by moment attention.

This reflexive engagement with power is not merely for us to do internal work in terms of how we think of it, experience it, and act within it: it equips us to do the second thing that the group flagged as an important consideration, namely how might we best interrupt power as part of our personal ethics and the practice that we bring into organisations. That is not to say that this is a simple and unchallenging thing to do; it requires us to embrace the change that we need to be in order to catalyse the change in the wider system.

In formally launching the space race in 1962, Kennedy stated,

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

As agents in organisational life, we must also make a similar choice, one that puts us in an uncertain space and one that places great demand upon us. We cannot afford to explore the issue in an abstract way, as one participant shared in the discussions, because it is a delicate and deeply personal topic:

When I have worked with the issue of power explicitly with groups, they tend to be both fascinated and uncomfortable.

Hence to support people to develop their fascination and to set aside the discomfort that accompanies such conversations, it requires us to embody a commitment to parrhesia, as Foucault discusses, a truth-telling of our heartfelt opinions in the face of power and with potentially boundless personal cost.

But not to put this pre-figurative practice in train, a practice that seeks to interrupt power in its quotidian guise, is to contribute to the reproduction of power as presently constituted and experienced – and this is where the widespread business activity called OD tends to find itself at present.

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