Pattern #48


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Prudent Use of Power-Over Card - Version 1


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Prudent Use of Power-Over

Credit: Voyagerix – sebra –  Shutterstock

Often we seek to control what we cannot engage collaboratively. While sometimes necessary, domination often demands extra energy, evokes resistance and/or causes harm. So use power-over minimally and mindfully for broad benefit and, wherever possible, with consent. Profoundly respect the life energy and needs of those whose lives are being managed.

Related: 7 Checks on Extreme Inequality, 13 Constraints on Concentrated Power, 38 Multi-Modal Power, 42 Partnership Culture, 54 Self-Organization, 55 Sortition, 68 Whole System in the Conversation

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

This is noting that the impulse to control is something to be careful of. We basically want to get our way, we want our needs to be met, we want our vision to manifest. So we try to get that to happen, and when we use the control modes – when we use controlling power-over dominating manipulative modes – sometimes we can get good linear results with that, but we also are usually invoking resistance from whatever we are trying to control. People are systems that we are pushing. We push because they’re not willingly giving us their life energy, so we have to push in some way to get them to move in the directions we want.

To a certain degree it’s different if it’s a totally mechanical or physical system, like, you want to move this rock from over here to over there. There’s even ways to get the rock to collaborate using levers and all that, since it has a tendency to roll, so let’s work with that tendency. But to the extent its mechanical it has certain resistance we need to deal with.

But it’s a whole other thing when we are dealing with living people living systems, living ecosystems and organisms. There’s more life energy there.  If we can figure out how to work with that, it will save us a lot of extra energy not having to put energy into the system and manage it all the time – especially if we can help it run itself.  This brings up the related pattern of self-organization; we can design the self-organized system in such a way that all the participants in the self-organizing system are getting benefits – including us, because we are part of it. That kind of logic, in general, applies to working with all different kinds of entities and systems.

And sometimes using power-over is necessary.  Getting the spoon to your mouth in this collaborative way, can be in most situations unnecessarily complicated. Picking up the spoon and just moving it is the way to go – at least if you have good motor control. So that spoon-control is a form of power-over.  And if there’s a really urgent situation, and certain people are competent to handle that, we just turn ourselves over to those competent people to direct us. You capsize on the river, and somebody particularly knows what to do in those circumstances, you work with them to handle it rather than saying, “Hey, we have to sit down and do a consensus process.”

So there are situations where power-over – the more managerial approaches or even raw force – are needed. You probably have heard the standard defense of control:  the kid running out in front of a truck, and you go and race out and grab the kid and pull him or her back.

It’s just that we need to also realize that whenever we use power-over, we are going to generate some kind of current or future residue. We have done something which interferes with the natural flow of things, and the natural flow of things adapts to that in ways that sometimes are not helpful and get in the way of things we want do in the future. To the extent we can operate in a collaborative way, on the other hand, we are using the energy of the life around us and energies that are in the situations we are in to do a bunch of the work that is needed to deal with the situation.

So that is the reason to minimize power-over. It is very tempting to use control and manipulation and managerial approaches when you want to have things be in a particular way, but you need to recognize that there is an undercurrent to that.

Now this is related to wisdom in an interesting way.  The definition of wisdom that we’re using here, a workable definition, is “taking into account what needs be taken into account for long-term broad benefit.”  So, if you are engaging the energies of the people, the life forms, the energies and the relationships in the system, you are using that in a way that benefits all the people or entities involved in the system.

So that is implicitly – by definition – a form of wisdom. So we are always on the lookout for how to partner with whoever, whatever is there in the system, how to make it very lively, and to only do managerial control, manipulation, or force when it’s really necessary to do that.

And of course these are skills to be learned by individuals, by groups, by whole societies. It’s not necessarily easy to do, but the universe tells us and people tell us, that when we are pushing something and there’s resistance, we’re not using the life energy that’s there. There are a lot of feedback loops that can help us learn – if we want to learn – and that resistance is one of the main feedback loops that can help us learn what we need.

This pattern was originally named “Minimize Power-Over” but a number of people have objected to this negative framing, noting that power-over can be consciously delegated – and consciously consented to – for specific functions and time periods (often because the person or group delegated to has special qualifications for that empowered role). These critics have reasonably suggested that such a combination of power-over and power-with is a wise use of collective energy.  Nevertheless, since the core characteristic of power-over is control over dynamics and energies that would otherwise engage elsewhere, the chances of resistance and suppression remain high (dancing around the “consent” feedback loop).  Therefore, while accepting the logic of not framing power-over in unduly negative terms, we have injected the quality of “prudence” into it to highlight the need for careful use.”

Video Introduction (10 Min)

Examples and Resources

When I’m put in the situation doing a speech from a podium or a stage and there’s a bunch of people in rows in front of me, I make a point to say, “Notice how hard it is for you to talk together and how easy it is for me to talk to you from this set up. That’s a good example of a system that structures the way we think and act and respond to situations.”

If the chairs are not bolted to the floor, of course, you can always move them from a top-down set up to a circle or a group of circles. It’s hard to dominate in a circle (although some people are really good at it!). A circle just lends itself to more interaction.

In Teal organizations, an example of minimizing power-over is a flat management chart. The boss – or the so-called boss, the CEO – is in the center instead of on top. You could say the CEO is in the center with all these teams around him or her and that’s the management chart. But people who are not familiar with the Teal model would not know what that is.

Consensus process is a non-dominating approach – although, again, any of these things can be used to dominate.  Sometimes the people who can stay up the longest through an endless meeting are the ones to come to consensus!

Dynamic Facilitation, Open Space, and many similar processes are emergent interactive processes with little if any power-over dynamics.

Collaborative intelligence, as such, manifests in practices such as Aikido and teamwork.

You want to minimizing inequality because when there’s massive inequality in the society, there are lots of stresses and inefficiencies. There are studies of economic inequality because it is such a gigantic problem nowadays. They show that societies that are more equal tend to have better outcomes in their decision-making and social measures.

Campaign finance reform is a way to interfere with and minimize power-over, so that wealthy people can’t play around unfairly with the society’s elections.

Constitutional checks are all about putting limits on concentrated power-over

Networks, of course, disperse power so that it is more difficult to exercise power-over both within the network and from outside of it.

Permaculture is trying to do a power-with exercise with all the entities involved in a particular setting, including the sun, the rocks, as well as the plants and animals and people.  It only allows select power-over dynamics among plants and animals that naturally have such dynamics in their relationships.