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The power to make work more human

Talking about power

Power is essential for making and leading changes. Power is the capacity to get people to do things. Power might be used to make changes to or to prevent them. This could occur directly between people, or at a distance through a web of relationships or the use of technology or stories and worldviews or some combination of these approaches.

Power shapes how work is organised. It also shapes how societies are structured, how teams function, how families and relationships work, or don’t. It can be very influential in the ways we see ourselves.

Making work more human requires many people to take action. Many different decisions, by different people, are needed for more human working conditions to emerge. All of this involves the use of power.

We rarely talk about power in polite company. We might gossip and complain about it when others exercise power but it is unusual to talk about it openly, cleanly, and directly whether we are using power or subject to the power of others.

Given that it is very helpful to be aware of the nature and distribution of power and how it might be put to good use, it is empowering for us as individuals or as leaders of teams to be able to see the arrangement of power in a situation and to be able to talk about this openly.

A first step in making work more human is to be more open and explicit about the distribution and use of power.

Emergence and paradox

There are two aspects to touch on before addressing the substance of the power issues. Power is emergent and paradoxical.

First, emergence. Power is not just one thing, you cannot buy it by the case. Instead it tends to emerge when a number of elements combine. It depends on the situation and the context. For example: power can be a combination of an individual’s comfort with using power, the rules that might exist inside an organisation, the extent to which people might go along with a leader’s requests and instructions, and the privileges society may or may not have bestowed on a person.

This idea of emergence is important because we cannot create power just as a thing, nor can we create more human work as a thing. We cannot go from a simple cause to an effect. Instead we have to consciously manage the conditions around power, and around work becoming more human, to enable the good things we aspire to emerge and flourish.

The exercise of power is also replete with paradoxes.

By paradox I mean that within power, and particularly power at work, there exist together, at the same time, “self-contradictory, mutually constituting, essentially conflicting ideas, neither of which can be eliminated or resolved.”[1] Sometimes these interconnected and ongoing elements are called polarities[2]. They cannot be managed like problems and be resolved or fixed. They need to be lived and work with and through in a process of continual adjustment and recalibration

The power paradox I focus on here is the relationship between power over and power with.

Balancing power with and power over

Making work more human depends on people being able to work together productively in fulfilling ways. Working together means having the power to work with each other to achieve common purposes.[3] In the literature on power this is often called power with.

Power with is often contrasted with power over. Where power with is the power to do something together, power over is the power to get someone else to do something they may not want to do.[4] This may be through persuasion, or the use of force or the threat of force, or by being able to offer resources and inducements to get people to do what you want, whether or not this is something they wish to do. It is sometimes called coercive power and it has traditionally been the main focus of research into how power is used. This is because these controls and the hierarchies they support have been dominant for most of human history and remain dominant in many ways.

These uses of power, power over and power with, are contradictory but interconnected and ongoing. In almost all situations at work power over and power with exist together in some form of creative tension. Both are necessary to make work more human, although making work more human may require a shifting in the weighting and attention given to power with compared with power over. But this does not remove elements of power over. It is not a matter of exchanging one for the other but instead of combining power over and power with in ways that enable opportunities and growth. Both are necessary.

A second step in making work more human is finding the most effective balance between power over and power with. Managing this balance is central to many of the decisions leaders make. The actual decisions depend in each case on the context and circumstances and are matters for continual observation and modification.

Managing these balances involves using power over others to set and hold clear boundaries, to create the spaces and opportunities where good things can be done, and then supporting the collaboration initiatives that involve sharing power.

Key questions that arise for leaders include: Where and how might we work together? Where are the boundaries? Who sets them and holds them and who moves them?

Power balances in making work more human

How might these balances look as we work to make work more human?

Let’s consider some of the elements that might make work more human and consider how much these might be dependent on power with or power over.

Here’s what I have on my list of elements that contribute to work being more human[5]: For human work, context matters. Your work needs to feel purposeful and rewarding and it needs to be safe, healthy, and sustainable.

For almost all of us, it matters to be well connected with other humans. We want to feel trusted at work and feel we can trust others (to be open, engaged, honest, fair and reasonable). We want to feel we are treated as humans, with care and compassion and to also be able to treat others this way. We also want work to be a place where we can learn and grow.

A third group of elements are those about how we do our work. We want to have agency to make decisions and get things done and to be able to set some boundaries for ourselves. We also need to be clear about our roles and the expectations be placed on us. We also want the expectations of others to be clear.

These elements of context, connection and clarity of role are self-reinforcing. They contribute to each other to create a felt sense of work being more human. The sense of humanity emerges from the interplay of the elements and the people involved.

Power with and power over interact across each of these elements in different ways. Here are some examples of this.


A large part of humanity at work comes from the connections we make with others, working together to achieve a common purpose. At the core of this process is whether I feel trusted by others, my boss, my peers, and my direct reports, and whether I can trust them. From this basis we can be open with each other and work together well. Power with is clearly critical to enabling connection.

So too is power over, although perhaps in less obvious ways. One of the essential elements of making work more human is reducing fear and enabling psychological safety. Amy Edmondson’s “leader’s tool kit” [6] for building psychological safety is a framing that shows power over and power with operating in combination.

There is the boundary-setting work that is involved in framing psychological safety and emphasizing purpose. In some settings this can be done collectively and engaging others in this work may be critical to its success. And it is also important that there is authority behind these moves and that authority has a significant of explicit or tacit power over.[7]

Inviting participation and supporting progress both depend on power with, driving forward through people working together and also using power over and power with together in establishing and holding the space.


Let’s look at purpose and health and safety as elements that make work more human. In the case of the purpose of our work, almost all of us serve somebody. We may work in companies and serve customers and, ultimately, shareholders; in government serving communities and taxpayers; in non-government organisations serving clients and donors; in community or political groups serving a cause.

The first power questions are who am I working with or for? The power that I and my organisation I might have is being exercised in service of what purpose? How much am I aligned with that purpose? How much am I accountable for acting in line with that purpose?

The direction and practices established in most workplaces by those we serve are most often examples of power over. We may have had a chance to influence this, but, the odds are against this.[8] As leadership consultants, most of the people we work with, identify with the mission and purpose of the organisations they work for. They may question the methods employed or the effectiveness of execution or the state of the leadership but, whether in child protection, or defence, or manufacturing or IT, they are generally onboard with the purpose of the work. They have usually exercised the power of choice in joining an organisation whose work they believe in.

The power with element here is the extent to which, in doing the work, we get to engage in whether we are delivering effectively on the organisation’s purpose and how much we might be able to make improvements in how work is delivered or struggle against ways the purpose might be being compromised.

One context where power over has been critical in making progress is in making work safer, healthier and more sustainable for those doing the work.

Over centuries, legislation regulating working hours and conditions and improving health and safety has required employers and workers to comply. It’s effectiveness has depended on both education and enforcement by regulators and the use of these legal constraints by trade unions and other legal representatives. There are notable examples of benign employers who have made it a priority to look after their workforce and do more than they have been required to. And then often conditions have changed, industries have become less profitable, companies have been sold and these gains have been lost. The existence of legal protections has provided a backstop that has enabled the great advancing in the health and safety of working people in the last century. Perversely, the efforts of new businesses in the gig economy to circumvent these requirements and recent legislation to unpick these gains (including restrictions on the use of child labour) has underlined their effectiveness.

There are also important power-with opportunities in the case of health and safety and environmental protections. Regulatory powers are often crude and setting rules often occurs after the event and cannot keep up with changing circumstances. More effective change occurs when businesses, employees and communities unite in an objective of making work safer and more human. When there is a shift from a compliance culture focused on not breaking the rules (or not getting caught) to a shared commitment to safety and humanity and finding ways to perform more effectively then improvements go farther and faster and occur across a broader front.

Clarity of role

It matters that each of us knows what is expected of us at work. This may include the expectations of employers, colleagues, and customers. It also helps us to know what is expected of each other so we can coordinate effectively.

There are contexts where roles can be set and adjusted collectively and, particularly in larger organisations, this adds substantially to the time required to make decisions. Instead a combination of power over and power with is usually used.

Roles are scoped out, decisions are made by leaders or leadership teams, people work to them and make adjustments in practice as they go. Larger reorganisations require more formal processes.

We can come back to the key questions for leaders posed earlier: Where and how might we enable people to work together? What and where are the boundaries for this? Who sets them and holds them and who moves these boundaries?

What is our power situation?

How can leaders assess the power issues and opportunities they might be facing as they move to make work more human? Power issues have many branches and many questions grow from each of these branches. What choices need to be made? By whom? Who influences those decisions? What rules and norms shape these decisions? What stories, values and beliefs do people hold about the situation that will shape how they act?

The power framework we have developed at Cultivating Leadership provides an opening to diagnosing the nature of your power situation and where you might need to focus your attention.

It is based on the observation that there are only three power moves that people can make:

1. Exercising power by making and implementing decisions or choices;

2. Influencing the decisions of others by engaging with them directly or creating rules and procedures that drive people’s behaviour; or,

3. At a greater distance, creating stories and beliefs that shape the ways that people see the world and the choices they make.

In summary power moves comprise choices, influence, and story. These operate at different levels: personal, group, organisational, systemic.

Here are some examples about how the different power moves interact at the different levels and provide a lens to address where the most pressing power issues exist in a particular situation:

· In diagnosing a personal or team power situation it might turn out that at the individual level different members of the team struggle to make choices or feel that they have little influence on the decisions being made.

· It maybe that at the group level the team members have different understandings of how decisions get made, how much they are delegated to individual team members or expected to be made by the group or the leader of the group.

· At the organisational level it may seem that the rules for the organisation are contradictory or do not align with the story the organisation or its leadership tell about their world.

· Systemically the organisation might have be committed to diversity, equity and inclusion but does not see the ways the majority society privileges particular groups and how this is reflected in decisions across the organisation.

These power issues are highly interconnected. There are also asymmetrical. Power is usually concentrated and generally self-reinforcing. There are often many situations where power is an issue but most of the people involved may not have power to do much about it.

The effect of deep interconnections and the asymmetry of power can either be feelings that:

· the situation is overwhelming, and/or

· that all we might do is to focus on something manageable even if that may not be a central issue.

Having a diagnosis of power issues enables individuals and groups to make more explicit choices about where they might focus their attention and commit to change. This is not a magic wand but it is a powerful lamp for illuminating the issues and enable power conversations to occur.

As we consider power issues at work we can ask: are the boundaries we are setting and holding enabling people to work together better? As we work together better are we using power in ways that help others do more of this too?

[1] Ralph D. Stacey and Chris Mowles (2015), Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations, Seventh edition, Person Education, Harlow, UK, p.39. [2] Barry Johnson (2020), And: Making a difference by leveraging polarity, paradox or dilemma, HRD Press, Amherst, MA. Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis (2019), Navigating Polarities: Using both/and thinking to lead transformation, Paradoxical Press. [3] There is a spectrum of working together. It might be a loose alliance or association with modest levels of coordination, or it could involve closer cooperation and sharing of resources, or perhaps extend to even closer collaboration where different parties labour together to create a solution. See Follett, Mary Parker, (1924) Creative Experience London: Longmans, Green, p.189. [4] The terms power to, power over, power with, and power within get used in many different ways. John Gaventa’s summary is useful. “Power is often used with other descriptive words. Power ‘over’ refers to the ability of the powerful to affect the actions and thought of the powerless. The power ‘to’ is important for the capacity to act; to exercise agency and to realise the potential of rights, citizenship or voice. Power ‘within’ often refers to gaining the sense of self-identity, confidence and awareness that is a precondition for action. Power ‘with’ refers to the synergy which can emerge through partnerships and collaboration with others, or through processes of collective action and alliance building.” Gaventa John (2006), “Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis,” IDS Bulletin Vol 37 No 6, November 2006, Institute of Development Studies. [5] You might have a different list. That’s cool. I’m not going to argue about that here. I’m going to assume my list is good enough for the purposes of describing how power might be used to enable these changes. We could debate these elements and the power moves involved. That would be a good thing. It would again be an example of making the goals and uses of power more explicit. [6] Edmondson, Amy C. (2019) The Fearless Organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth, Wiley, Hoboken, N.J. Table 7.1, p. 158. [7] Another example of the effective combination of power over and power with in boundary setting and enabling empowerment of employees comes in the examples described by Frederic Laloux in his book on self-organising entities. In these case, behind the space for effective self-organising is almost always a founder or single leader (sometimes a maverick) who is holding a firm boundary. (2014) Reinventing Organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness, Nelson Parker. [8] There are many self-organising collectives in the world where members get to influence the direction of their work (see Jim Wick’s chapter on Cultivating Leadership) but these are a small minority in comparison to where most people work.

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