Three Possibilities to Move from Power Over to Power With

The Acme Corp senior leadership team is thrilled that they can bring people back to the office. That team decided that everyone would be back in the office on Mondays and Thursdays.

Why Mondays and Thursdays? The senior leaders could make those days work with their schedules.

They rolled this decision out to the rest of the organization.

The directors asked, “What do we do about the people who travel? Are they supposed to wait and travel on Monday night or Tuesday? Are they then supposed to return to meet in the office on Thursday?”

Several teams asked questions about meeting rooms and the availability of those rooms. They knew from experience that there were not enough meeting rooms for everyone to meet. Especially now that senior leadership wanted people to meet in person—during just those two days each week.

They're supposed to return to the office this coming Monday. (That day is Patriot's Day, also known as Boston Marathon day in Massachusetts. The Bostonians have the day off because their office is in downtown Boston. Face-palm.)

Right now, the senior leadership all live in New York. The Boston senior leader left six months ago, and they replaced him with a New York-based person. That's why the leadership team didn't know about Monday.

However, that's a minor and temporary problem.

These senior leaders exhibited “power over” behaviors—they made the back-to-work decision without consulting anyone else. The leaders focused only on the outcomes, not on the relationships.

People Often Succeed Better When They Build Relationships

We tend to succeed more often when we build our formal and informal relationships across the organization. Those relationships allow us to test ideas and decisions. In addition, those relationships help us use our influence (as opposed to power) to make those decisions happen.

Those relationships help us use “power with.” The more people we lead and serve, the more “power with” is a better alternative. All because we share the decision-making power with others. As soon as we start sharing decision-making, we tend to create more options. Those options often lead to better decisions.

“Power with” focuses on relationships and outcomes—not one or the other.

Consider these possibilities for deciding when to use “power with” for decision-making:

  • What is the span of this decision? The more people this decision affects, the more you might want to consider sharing the power.
  • What are the risks of sharing this decision-making? Can you split this decision, so the risks decrease?
  • What are the benefits of sharing this decision-making?

Here's how a different company chose to make the back-to-work decision.

An Example of a Power-With Back-to-Work Decision

Another company, BigCo, is all collocated in the Boston area. However, they had the same problems as Acme. They wanted everyone back to work as often as possible. And they also had the too-few conference rooms problem before the pandemic. Here's what senior leadership said:

  • In our experience, face-to-face collaboration works better than video-based collaboration. Now that the personal risks are lower, how and when will you decide to use our conference rooms for more collaborative work?
  • Before the pandemic, we encouraged people to eat in the cafeteria and talk to each other in the coffee areas. We hope you choose to do so now. That's why we encourage everyone to stay up-to-date on their vaccines and boosters. We want that serendipitous collaboration to be safe for everyone.
  • As teams, please decide when you will be available in the office, so other teams and people know when they could collaborate with you in person.
  • We will still conduct monthly or bi-monthly workshops, where we will workshop roadmaps, backlogs, architecture, and other product decisions in person. Please feel free to add your workshopping efforts to that list.

Not everyone is planning on the same days. However, the teams are now ready to experiment. And the teams get to make most of their own decisions.

The managers used principles to decide.

Power-With Helps Us See Principles

BigCo used these principles to decide:

  • Collaboration over solo work.
  • Make each space healthy for as many people as possible.
  • Transparency: for setting expectations about in-the-office time.
  • Trust: as in helping people decide when to use remote vs. in-office work. And prompting people to choose in-office where possible.

Are these the “right” principles and possibilities for you? Probably not. However, I hope they give you ideas for how you might use power-over and power-with.

Summary of the Possibilities

Here's how I think about the possibilities for power-with, in terms of guidelines:

  • If the decision affects people's autonomy for how they work, consider sharing the decision.
  • Assess the risks of sharing this decision. Could you reduce the risks by making this decision smaller?
  • Assess the benefits of sharing this decision-making. Will you increase your influence if you share this decision?

There is no One Right Way to decide anything. However, know this: People always remember how you make them feel. The more they feel they have a stake in the outcome, the more likely everyone is to succeed.

(This newsletter touches on topics in all three Modern Management Made Easy books.)

Learn with Johanna

The next public writing workshop will be in Q4, If you think you want to write better and faster, add yourself to the email list for that workshop.

I’m leading a session at the Leading Complexity series of masterclasses: Modern Management: Position Yourself to Take Advantage of Complexity. Yes, it’s about the ideas in the Modern Management books, but you’ll recognize many of the ideas. Use this coupon for a 20% discount: ROTHMANFRIEND20.

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© 2022 Johanna Rothman

Pragmatic Manager: Vol 19, #4, ISSN: 2164-1196

2 thoughts on “Three Possibilities to Move from Power Over to Power With”

  1. “Not everyone is planning on the same days. However, the teams are not ready to experiment. And the teams get to make most of their own decisions.”

    Should this be “the teams are now ready to experiment?”

    Thanks for the article.

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