How Do We Balance the Power to Make Decisions with Who Feels the Outcomes?

When you were a child, your parents made all the decisions for how you lived. I distinctly remember thinking it was “so unfair” that I had to go to bed and not read more. Yes, I was one of those kids who read under the covers with a flashlight.

Even as adults, we live in a culture where we cede some decisions to our elected officials at all levels: local, state, and in our country. We can’t personally make all the decisions we need to live reasonable lives. That’s why we use politicians to make decisions for us. (And that’s why elections are so important to our functioning as a healthy society.)

We cede many decisions at work to our managers.

When our managers decide you should do “more with less” or “just do it all,” they’re not deciding which work to do, first, second, and never. They use their power over you to make bad decisions. Worse, they don’t feel the outcome of those decisions—you do.

While those job problems are bad, they aren’t the real problem. The real problem is that these managers use the wrong kind of power to decide. They use power over, when the outcomes affect everyone. Instead, the managers need to use power with to find outcomes that work for most, if not all of us.

Who has which kind of power, who uses that power, and who pays for the decisions other people make?

Let’s start with the various kinds of power, power over and power with.

Power Over

In hierarchies, we expect some people to have—and exert—power over others. For example, we want senior leadership to decide on the strategy for the organization. Even if the strategy changes, we want the senior people to decide. That’s a useful form of power over. We want one strategy so the entire organization works to implement that strategy.

And, if someone sees a fire in a movie theater, we want someone to yell, “Fire!” We also want someone to say, “Here’s a safe way out!”

Those are useful forms of power over, too.

However, micromanagement is also a form of power over. If your boss ever “checks in” with you every hour, or asks for details of your decisions, or critiques your decisions, that boss might micromanage you.

The bosses don’t feel the outcomes of their micromanagement, at least, not right away. However, you do. If you’re like me, you grow resentful of your manager exerting power over your actions and decisions.

That resentment might grow enough that you leave. Worse, you start working to the “letter of the law,” not what the work needs.

Power over structures often create environments where people appear to do the bare minimum of work—because it’s not worth trying to use your initiative.

We have more choices than to exert power over others. We can collaborate and trust each other, to use power with.

Power With

Power over is great for setting a general direction and in emergencies. However, many of us make many more fine-grained decisions every day. We want the power to make those decisions, either alone or, more likely, with collaborators.

That’s the essence of power with.

When teams use power with, they can create an environment of trust and collaboration, because they share the decision-making.

Power with doesn’t mean the decision-making is easy—far from it. However, the more we share the decision-making, the more opportunity we have for fairer outcomes. The outcomes don’t feel onerous to us.

If your team can’t decide between two decisions, someone can start to create power with by using these questions:

  • Can we generate more options (especially with the Rule of Three), so we can see what might work even better?
  • How short an experiment can we create to try each of these options?
  • What are the differences between each of these? Might we just choose one and make it easy to choose again later?

These questions might not fit your context, so change them. Questions like these might help you decide with others.

Power Struggles Will Always Exist

Because we’re human, and most of us choose to work and live with others, we will feel the power struggle between power over and power with. I’m not sure there is a “right” balance.

However, watch for these signals: one group of people makes decisions for others. And the deciders do not feel the effects of the outcomes. That’s a good indication the deciders use power over, not power with.

And if you have a team/group that’s stuck, you might need to exert a little power over, instead of power with.

I have a theory that the whole point of being a teenager is that everyone in the family struggles with moving from the parents’ power over, to the family’s power with. That’s just a theory.

That’s the question this week: How do we balance the power to make decisions with who feels the outcomes?

Sorry I went long, and do add your comments. Thanks.

2 thoughts on “How Do We Balance the Power to Make Decisions with Who Feels the Outcomes?”

  1. It’s so important to be honest about who has what power.
    I just left a client after seven months. I was hired as a “data architect”. While I’ve never head that exact title, at almost all of my clients I have a fair bit of control as to how things get done. Here, I wrote several thousand lines of SQL code to bail out a project based on other people’s decisions. (Yes, i can write SQL. no, I would not have taken the job if I knew this was what I was going to be doing.)
    I told my key contact (who brought me in and who I do like as a person) that going forward they should not look for an architect if she and the CIO were going to make all the decisions and just say “make this work”. She kind of/sort of nodded her head. But as I was leaving they were starting on a project to make a BI tool the CIO liked work by destroying the integrity of their underlying data model.
    So, so happy to be a consultant with other clients

    1. Ah, clients. I wasn’t even thinking of them when I wrote this post. :-) (I’m laughing at myself, because I am a consultant.)

      You ran right into the HiPPO problem—the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. When the client and the consultant use power-with, the consultant can support the client’s growth. But, when the client insists on power-over? The consultant often feels as if they are in a worse position than the employees.

      Good for you, for choosing again.

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