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Change Elemental

Fundamentally our work – the work of justice – is about power. Many of us entered justice work because we were outraged by the harm resulting from misuse or abuse of power. We are keenly aware of how power operates in the broader political and cultural context, and we strive to build organizations that have the power to bend the arc of humanity more sharply toward justice.

At the same time, because we have seen power used so badly, many of us, in our roles as managers, are uncomfortable with power and want to disassociate ourselves with it.  As a result, we managers often fail to acknowledge or take responsibility for how much power we have – in our own organizations, over our own staff.  So how can we, as managers, acknowledge and responsibly exercise our formal power and avoid abusing it?  

Making meaning of – and acknowledging – your power

Managers aren’t just negotiating the positional power that comes from being a supervisor. We are also simultaneously navigating societal power dynamics that are built around differences in race, class, gender, sexuality, age, education, and ability. This complicates how much power we each have as individuals, how we feel about having power, and how our power is seen and received. Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many social justice managers find it challenging to discuss, come to terms with, take responsibility for, and exercise the power that comes from being a manager. 

By definition, our positions as managers often give us the power to hire and fire people and to make decisions that others have to live with or carry out. This power shapes how staff view us, hear our words, and experience our actions. Staff members have a very different experience when a co-worker speaks sharply or fails to follow through compared to when a manager does the same. Everything we do as managers carries additional weight and significance for our staff, whether we like it or not. 

When we managers fail to acknowledge how much power we have, we are unlikely to take responsibility for our power and make sure that we are using it constructively. Only when we own our own power and are constantly aware of the impact it can have on others will we managers make certain that we are always exercising our power responsibly.

As we become increasingly conscious of and sensitive to our power as managers, we find ourselves in a permanent tension. On the one hand, we know we must advance the goals of our organizations, make key decisions, manage resources, and hold staff accountable for high performance.  If we fail to use this power, we undermine our organization’s ability to achieve its mission.  On the other hand, we want to act in accordance with our core justice values – empowering staff, engaging them in decisions, and treating them with respect, care, and compassion.  Sometimes these two responsibilities conflict, and we must struggle to find the balance.  

The gift of tension

Holding these tensions well is especially important in justice organizations. People go to work in social justice organizations because we want to bring progressive social change to the world. Consequently, we expect to be treated and supervised in a way that is consistent with the same progressive values that organizations seek to advance. If there is dissonance between the organization’s espoused values and the way staff are treated, it leaves staff members demoralized and disillusioned, and some end up leaving the nonprofit sector forever.  

This permanent tension that reflects the tension between current reality and the world we want to create, can, in fact be a manager’s greatest gift.  It can serve as a reminder to us – urging us to be conscious of what we can achieve with our power and at the same time be intentional, responsible, and careful about how we use it.   If we no longer feel this tension and become blasé about our power, then we are sure to make some damaging management mistakes. 

Tips for responsibly exercising power

Below are some ways to thoughtfully negotiate that permanent tension discussed in the article and responsibly exercise formal power.

  • Be honest with yourself about your relationship to power and explore its influence on your management style.  Own the power you do have and your range of feelings about it.
  • Consciously examine the complexity of power and how differences in race, class, gender, sexuality, age, education, and ability are also at work all the time.  Being a responsible manager means understanding these dynamics and acknowledging how one’s own identity and the identity of those you manage shape power and privilege in your managerial relationships.
  • Learn how job applicants like to be managed, what they expect from the job, and how they know they are respected.  Set realistic expectations from the beginning, given the organizational culture and job requirements.
  • Clearly delineate lines of authority and stick to them. Make sure staff are clear about who makes what decisions and when they need to share information with you, gather your input, or seek final approval.  If you need to make adjustments, have a frank conversation about it.
  • Engagement: Solicit staff involvement for major decisions you are making, especially when that decision directly impacts them. When seeking input from staff:
    • Let staff know who holds the final decision-making power (you, the board, the executive director) and that the input from staff will be carefully considered.  
    • Bring in the voice of everyone who is affected, even though not everyone’s voice is equal. 
    • Don’t leave staff holding the anxiety of an unanswered question without the reassurance that you, as their manager, are prepared to weigh all the factors and their input to make the final tough call.
    • Acknowledge staff’s contributions and let them know they were heard.
  • Share how you arrived at a decision and the different factors you weighed. Problems are often more complex than what staff can see from their own position and experience. Appropriately communicate the larger organizational context and encourage staff to expand their view from just their own individual experience to a more organization-wide perspective.
  • Follow-through when you’ve made a promise or given your word and acknowledge when you haven’t.
  • Mindfully interact with your staff.
    • Respect where people are at and what their potential is and help them realize it. 
    • Remember that while you may be having a bad day or feeling frustrated about circumstances (and that is completely legitimate), expressing your emotions with your staff present can have a bigger impact on them than you intend. 
    • Use staff meetings to provide a regular time and space for all staff to learn about the larger issues and provide input.
  • Make time for your own growth and self-reflection. Engage in a 360 review and ask staff in their annual performance review if there are ways in which you, as their manager, can more effectively supervise, manage, and/or assist them in achieving their job objectives or improving their job performance.  As you seek to learn and grow as a manager, consider engaging a leadership coach to support your development.
  • Create and/or participate in spaces for managers to consciously discuss complex power dynamics, reflect on the tensions they experience around being a manager, and solicit support and advice from peers. Consider a facilitated discussion and trainings around managing people for your staff.

Banner photo credit: Herry Lawford | CC BY 2.0

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