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The Will to Share Power
Our power grows as we share it. But how do you actually start power-sharing at work? I asked Tania Luna, author of Lead Together.
This is the final installment of Strange New Work, a special series that uses speculative fiction to explore radical work futures. Find the whole series here.
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The Future of Power
Power. Some fear it. Others hoard it. Some with power speak softly. Others carry a big stick. Power is charisma, or coercion, or violence. Power is name recognition, or money, or computer code.
Regardless of your definition or perceptions of it, power plays a critical role in how we work.
In this final installment of Strange New Work, I want to explore power—what we can do with it, how we can grow it, and, critically, how we can share it—because power in the future of work will look very different than it does today.
So what is power?
"Power is the capacity to get things done," author and entrepreneur Tania Luna tells me. "You need power to do anything." Tania's new book, Lead Together, is a guide to building better teams through power-sharing.
When we think of "getting things done," we often think about action plans, deliverables, and due dates. But Tania says a critical question to ask is: "How do I make sure [the people I work with] have the power to get this thing done?" Teams that share knowledge, context, and decision-making have more power to overcome obstacles like uncertainty and rapid change.
In many cultures, power-sharing happens at all levels of community engagement. However, you probably don't live in one of those cultures. Western supremacist and imperialist culture vests power in Machiavellian strategies, even as it embraces the guise of democracy. According to power researcher Dacher Keltner, there's a "widespread tendency ... to think of power as involving extraordinary acts of coercive force."
And we don't typically think about regular people being able to wield power in that way. Keltner writes:
Power was what the great dictators wielded; power was embodied in generals making decisive moves on battlefields, businessmen initiating hostile takeovers, coworkers sacrificing colleagues to advance their own careers, and bullies on the middle-school playground tormenting smaller kids.
And since we associate power with these scenarios of control, belittling, and even violence, many of us distrust or avoid anything that resembles power.1
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Extraordinary Power, Extraordinary Responsibility
Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven is a novel about extraordinary power—even if it's exercised in a manner that would confuse the hell out of Machiavelli. The protagonist, George Orr, has what he calls "effective dreams." As in, they create an effect. His dreams have the ability to change the fabric of reality.
At the opening of the story, George is terrified of falling asleep because he doesn't want to wake up to find out he's dreamed up a major catastrophe. He takes drugs to suppress his dreams, and his dependency on that medication gets him flagged by government surveillance. He's required to visit a psychologist—a dream specialist—for therapy.
This psychologist, Dr. Haber, is a bit unorthodox. He's been experimenting with a machine that he's designed to induce a dream state while leaving the mind open to suggestion.
Maybe you see where this is going.
Dr. Haber coerces George to agree to a program of therapy to cure him of his effective dreams. He tells George that through supervised dreaming, George will learn to no longer dream effectively. During each session, Dr. Haber hooks George up to the machine and hypnotizes him to suggest a particular kind of dream. George dreams according to plan, and when he wakes up, he feels better.
But George quickly figures out that Dr. Haber isn't actually curing him.
Haber is using George's effective dreams to change reality.
The bulk of the novel is purposefully disorienting, shifting from one version of reality to the next. Le Guin deftly keeps the reader wondering, "Did I miss something?" But no, it's just the result of the last dream.
Dr. Haber, who started the story as a middling psychologist with no great accolades to his name, spotted a tool for attaining power when it entered his office. And he uses that tool to achieve ever greater heights of power. Le Guin writes:
The quality of the will to power is, precisely, growth. Achievement is its cancellation. To be, the will to power must increase with each fulfillment, making the fulfillment only a step to a further one. The vaster the power gained, the vaster the appetite for more. As there was no visible limit to the power Haber wielded through Orr’s dreams, so there was no end to his determination to improve the world.
Haber believes he changes things for the better, improving everyone's lives. And it's this seeming benevolence that keeps George coming back. He doesn't like being used, but he wants to help make the world a better place.
Haber wields his power without any concern for the knock-on effects of the changes he suggests to George. And as the residue from each change builds up, the world they inhabit looks more and more strange.
If power is the capacity to get things done, who really has the power in Le Guin's story?
Is it Dr. Haber who seems to control George through manipulation and dream suggestions? Or is it George who has the ability to effectively dream?
Dr. Haber exercises his institutional power over George, functionally taking on George's capacity to dream effectively as his own. And it's this kind of power that we often think of when we think about the proverbial powers that be.
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Power Over vs. Power With
But, power over is just one way of expressing and organizing power.
Mary Parker Follett, working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is largely forgotten today. But she's been called "The Mother of Management Theory," and Peter Drucker cited her as one of the most influential thinkers on his own theories about management.
Follett makes a distinction between power-over paradigms and power-with paradigms. "Power over," explains Tania, "is this paradigm where we use power as a means of controlling others."
The power-over paradigm is familiar to anyone who's worked for a controlling or micromanaging boss.
Your boss tells you what to work on and how they want it done. They rule over meetings while others listen quietly, knowing their feedback won't matter. They might even take the credit for the team's successes or pass off your ideas as their own.
Power-over is the kind of power that authoritarian leaders of all kinds exercise. It's that all-too-familiar Machiavellian power that many of us have learned to fear.
The appeal of the hierarchical power-over model is that it seems efficient. Sure, collaboration is nice—but it's slow, right? Tania says that operating in a power-over paradigm is often inefficient. When people don't have the power to speak up, "they might be confused, they might be disagreeing, they might be totally demotivated." So even if the plan comes together fast, "the execution could be slow or just not happen" at all.
"Power with," Tania tells me with mirth, "is way more exciting."
Power with recognizes that when everyone participates and shares the power they have, our capacity to get things done grows.
Whether it takes the form of knowledge, decision-making authority, or context, power that's shared is power that grows. "Mary Parker Follett describes it as coactive power," explains Tania. "With power over, you have a finite amount of power. With power with, we're constantly growing our capacity to get things done."
Tania also makes a distinction between cultivating power and collecting power.
In the power-over paradigm, leaders need to collect people with greater and greater capacity to get things done in order to grow the power of the organization. Hiring decisions are made based on who brings the skills and strengths that will make the team a little more powerful than it was before. People who haven't had the same access to power, regardless of their capacity for growth, end up left out.
However, in the power-with paradigm, the capacity to get things done can be cultivated both on the individual and the team levels. Instead of asking who already has the power to get things done, you can ask, "How do [I] take the people that are already around [me] and build their power?"
That question can be answered in many ways—including supporting skill-building, sharing information, creating frameworks for decision-making, connecting the right people, or even giving people the authority to make decisions on their own.
Power With In Practice
The power-with paradigm likely aligns with your values and the way you want to be of service in the world. But putting it into practice is a whole other thing. Most people haven't worked in environments that really embrace power-with. We lack models and skills for putting it into place.2
Often, those who want to move toward the power-with paradigm end up in a sort of middle ground. Abandoning hierarchy, for example, might feel impossible. But you still want to empower those around you to offer feedback and collaborate on projects. This is a common scenario in which a single decision-maker, for example, asks for feedback from her team. Clearly, that's better than not gathering feedback at all!
But Tania cautions that this approach gets in trouble when the single decision-maker is always the same person (e.g., the business owner). Instead, the decision-maker or project lead could rotate. "Sometimes you're the one that's leading the project, sometimes I'm the one that's leading the project, sometimes someone else is leading the project, and we all hear each other's perspectives, but then ultimately there's one decision maker," she explains.
A true power-sharing scenario that Tania recommends is a combination of proposal and consent.
Imagine a team meeting about an ongoing challenge with client service, specifically clients routinely ask for last-minute changes despite signing off on deliverables. Someone in the meeting lays out the issue and the specific goal for a solution. Then they open the floor to proposals: "Who has an idea for what we should try?"
"When you have a proposal approach," explains Tania, "those ideas can come from anywhere." Sure, there are people on the team who have specific knowledge of the challenge—but people who work in other areas might have creative and unexpected ideas.
So, someone pitches an idea. The next step is to open the proposal to questions from the group. Ideally, everyone takes their turn until all the questions are exhausted. The proposer responds and adjusts the idea. From there, the group takes turns offering advice or suggestions about the idea. The proposer again responds and adjusts.
Then, it's time for the consent round. "Consent is not consensus," cautions Tania, "but everyone has veto power. They have the power to say, 'I stand against this proposal' if they believe it's not safe to try."
Safe to try simply means that the basis for a veto is a concern that the proposal could be harmful or dangerous for the organization. Anyone who exercises their veto then must explain why they believe the idea isn't safe to try so that the proposer can "come up with a way to mitigate the risk" before sharing their proposal again.
That might sound like a lot of steps. But Tania said the process can happen very quickly and that it can set in motion a number of experiments. Everyone is invested in the success of the various proposals, and results add up fast.
This all probably seems like a lot to learn. But only because it requires a lot of unlearning. Follett's teaching about operating in this power-with paradigm has been boiled down to three principles:
Expect to need others. Expect to be needed. And expect to be changed.
Needing, being needed, and experiencing change certainly aren’t novel human experiences. And yet, we’ve largely learned to avoid them at work. Self-reliant people shouldn’t need anything from others, right? Self-reliant people know what they think and don’t have to change their minds, right? Of course not. But we have to unlearn those deeply internalized reflexes of belief in order to embrace working in a power-with paradigm.
Follett’s principles are echoed in adrienne maree brown's book Emergent Strategy. As part of an exploration of iterative interdependence, brown notes four habits she's had to cultivate on her own journey:
Be seen. Be wrong. Accept my inner multitudes. And ask for, and receive, the help I need.
brown writes that, as a result of these habits, she feels "much more woven into the world." And that's an integral part of the power-with paradigm—everyone involved gets to feel woven into the work.
Sharing Power Doesn't Mean Losing Power
That doesn't mean, however, that power can't be delegated to certain people. Nor does operating in a power-with paradigm mean that every detail hinges on reaching a consensus among the group. "I do not encourage [consensus decision-making]," says Tania with a bit of mischievousness. "I personally am too impatient and get kind of irritable" to make consensus work. Consensus decision-making, she explains, often encourages ideas that everyone can agree with rather than introducing creative friction.
What's more, the power-with paradigm doesn't mean swapping control for chaos or clear structure for lawlessness. People worry that when "you give up control, you give up... everything!" They fear having to let go of their vision, the quality they expect, and the structure that makes things work smoothly. "That couldn't be farther from the truth," explains Tania, "in fact, sharing power requires a lot of structure, a lot of coordination."
Sharing power requires the team to identify decision criteria and the scope of authority for individual team members. It takes thoughtfulness and effort.
In addition to misconceptions, many of us have developed coping mechanisms from growing up in power-over structures. And they can make it quite difficult to shift to working in a power-with paradigm.
Like many entrepreneurs, Tania could be a bit of a control freak. "I learned to be very self-reliant," she recalls, "I also became pretty good at what I was doing, and so it felt painful to see someone step in and do not as good of a job." But Tania realized that she could either be a control freak and have a small impact or invite others in, share power, and have a much larger impact.
She chose the latter.
Some of our coping mechanisms have more to do with wanting to protect others from the burdens of power. While attaining power can seem fun and exciting, it also brings with it real responsibilities. "In 2020, for example," Tania explains, "when I was still co-CEO of my last company, power sucked. We had so much strain on our business and so little cash. Sharing power meant sharing that information, sharing decision-making rights at a time when decisions were scary to make."
Tania might have wanted to save her people from those responsibilities—but that wouldn't have served anyone well. Today, she works to make sure that no one’s capacity to grow is limited by her taking on too much strain or responsibility herself.
Power & Privilege
Tania also shared how stereotypes, prejudice, privilege, and unconscious bias can impact the way power is distributed. "When we think about power in the workplace," she says, "oftentimes we forget that the workplace exists within the world. And the world shapes our sense of power." A person's background and social conditioning affect how they use power, even when it's formally afforded to them.
Our capacity to get things done isn't only a function of the power delegated to us at work. The power that we've inherited (or not) through the cultures we grew up in, the lessons we learned in our families, the way we were treated in our communities—these all impact power dynamics in the workplace.
To shift that balance, we need to build structures into the way we work that create space for those who don't easily exercise power to participate. We often assume that asking for ideas or questions constitutes the opportunity to contribute. But without explicit guidelines, workplaces just reproduce the power dynamics of the wider world.
Power and Dispossession
If The Lathe of Heaven is a cautionary tale about the consequences of wielding extraordinary power, The Dispossessed is Le Guin's "ambiguous utopia" about power-sharing.
In The Dispossessed, there are two neighboring worlds—a planet and its moon. The planet's geopolitics mimic our own. One major power is fiercely patriarchal and capitalist, the other is authoritarian and vaguely communist. Both operate in their own version of a power-over paradigm.
The moon, however, is populated by people who broke away from the planet's capitalist regime to found an anarchist syndicate. Private property, the nuclear family, and governing hierarchies have all been abolished. Le Guin labeled The Dispossessed an ambiguous utopia because, while the moon's society was closer to her ideal, it wasn't without its problems. Anarchist life isn't a free-for-all. What it lacks in law and hierarchy, it makes up for in norms and expectations. What it lacks in government, it makes up for in other forms of politicking.
Le Guin seems less interested in endorsing a form of government and more in raising the idea of solidarity and mutual aid as values that can organize a society. In a blog post from November 2010, Le Guin discusses the differences between what she calls male solidarity and female solidarity. I'll adjust the language some and call these ideas patriarchal solidarity and feminist solidarity.
Patriarchal solidarity is the kind that's forged on the battlefield, set against the Other, and strengthened through rivalry and competition. It might not even be "solidarity" at all.
Feminist solidarity, on the other hand, she says, "might be better-called fluidity—a stream or river rather than a structure." In the modern era, feminist solidarity, she notes, is most often experienced in private life. And she worries aloud about some women's rise up the ranks of patriarchal institutions. Le Guin was a fierce feminist, even if her feminism was fraught with privilege and, often, whiteness.
She ends that blog post with this:
I think feminism continues and will continue to exist wherever women work in their own way with one another and with men, and wherever women and men go on questioning male definitions of value, refusing gender exclusivity, affirming interdependence, distrusting aggression, seeking freedom always.
Power-sharing and its many benefits are incumbent on that persistent questioning. You can't simply replace a power-over process with a power-with process. It has to be part of a larger project of questioning how we define value, gatekeep identities, understand our mutuality, resist aggression and violence—all in an effort to seek freedom and liberate the extraordinary power of the group.
This truly is strange work. Some organizations already operate this way, of course. But many, many more will learn to share power as the future becomes the present. Our capacity to get things done—our power—depends on our fluidity and our dispossession of existing norms.
It'll be strange at first. But with time, I think it'll work.
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Coincidentally, today’s episode of If Books Could Kill dissects Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power and takes a more in-depth look at this kind of zero-sum power. This one included some unexpected twists! And it left me wondering whether the book is a work of historical analysis written in the 2nd person and marketed as a self-help book rather than a serious work of advice for attaining power.
In addition to Tania’s Lead Together,’s Team Habits has some excellent models and practices for empowering people on your team. You can also read more about his perspective in “Closed Doors, Implied Rules, and Unspoken Agreements,” “You Will Be Assimilated,” and his newsletter .