January 13, 2017

A meditation on power and change

by Helena Jeret-Mäe
A meditation on power and change

Power – so abstract yet so tangible. We can’t touch it yet we talk about “seizing power”. We can’t physically climb on top of it, yet we talk about “falling from power”. We refer to someone as powerful or powerless, yet these characterizations aren’t absolute or true for all time. For most of my life I never paid much thought to power and why I should even think about it in the first place. Power – it’s the stuff of politics, hierarchies and institutions, right?

In this article I would like to explore the concept of power in the context of management, and suggest some ways in which thinking of power can be applied to practical problems when initiating and implementing change.

But first, let’s talk philosophy

Once upon a time through a lucky coincidence, I discovered what Michel Foucault had written about power. Michel Foucault was an influential 20th century French philosopher who studied and extensively wrote about the history of ideas, literature, institutions, politics, language and discourse, ethics, and so on. However, knowledge and power were central to his work. Foucault’s influence, regardless of his pessimistic views, is profound across the humanities and social sciences.

The First Epiphany

I vividly remember the sensation I experienced when reading Foucault’s thoughts on power: how the pieces of the world clicked into place in my head, and the feeling of newfound clarity. The fog was lifted and the world was cast in new light. From this day I’ve used this model of power in various professional situations to rationalize and make sense of actions and consequences. As an inexperienced manager, I encountered many puzzling situations for which I lacked a frame of reference. Using the tools Foucault had given me to think of power, I was able to take a step back and reconsider the situation. It helped me to change perspective and achieve a richer understanding of relationships in hierarchies, and dealing with resistance.

Subjects and objects

Foucault defers defining power as the starting point because it should not be thought of as a “grand, reifying term”, and because power is not a tangible object in the first place. To start a discussion of power from defining it, may mean getting stuck with all the intricacies of a definition. Instead it’s the subject that adopts a central place in Foucault’s approach to power. So let’s shift the focus and talk about the subject. You are a subject that is capable of action upon themselves and upon others. You work, you learn, you move. You manage others, teach them, influence them to do something.

Self-targeted subjectivization means that we change and (re-)create ourselves. We change our appearance, we take care of ourselves, change habits, learn, and so on. When we target our actions towards another subject, this is what Foucault calls objectivization. However, even when a subject objectivizes another subject, the subject doesn’t turn into an object incapable of further action. The subject still remains an agent with capacity for doing something. In addition, one subject can be objectivized by multiple subjects at the same time, and, consequently, the subject can objectivize several subjects itself. This is where we can observe some emerging characteristics of power: nonbinary state, multidirectional impact, asynchronous duration.

Think of an everyday work situation. If someone makes a request for you to do something, you have more than one option to do something regardless of the request. If someone puts you into a difficult situation, you are still capable of taking several different paths out of it. Foucault reminds us that we are capable of some action even if we feel we aren’t.

In many a difficult situations when I’ve felt cornered and stuck, I’ve reminded myself that my perception of not having a course of action or more than one option is most likely an illusion I’ve created myself. Our own minds can sometimes turn us into inanimate objects who get whisked away by the tide (otherwise known as the victim mindset). Hence, it’s important to find mental models that help you get unstuck, and for me it’s been helpful to remind myself that I’m a subject no matter what.

Power defined

Foucault argues that power exists only when it’s being exercised and put into action. Power is not a commodity that sits around waiting to be seized and wielded. Power comes into existence when a subject objectivizes another subject. This is why the key to studying power lies in studying relationships between subjects, the nature and dynamics of them: this is where you see how power comes to life in the spider web of subjects being interlinked to each other in multiple ways.

Exercising power means acting on and modifying the field of possible current and future actions. By exercising power we don’t directly act upon someone physically but rather we act upon the circumstances, possibilities and options that are available to another subject. Through our actions we can open up the field of actions: open new paths, encourage different choices, illuminate an abundance of options for someone. However, by exercising power we could also diminish and rule out possibilities, reduce and chip away at options for actions, narrow and strain the field.

I think it’s interesting to ponder why Foucault chose to start the study of power from the subject not an institution or hierarchy of sorts. In my experience, you can approach studying an organization by looking at the org chart. The question is how much does this tell you about the power network and how things actually get done. When you adopt Foucault’s approach and study the individuals as subjects, you can learn a lot about the dynamics of power: what shapes the individual’s decision making, priorities, goals; what they resist and what they find easy to accomplish.

This is a mental model I’ve used in managerial positions: whatever requests I make, whatever structures I build or tear down, whatever I say or decision I make, all these actions count towards modifying other people’s field of possible actions, so I need to be aware of creating and destroying access points to places where different action is possible. I imagine the field of possibilities that my team and/or stakeholders see. Where are the opportunities they seek and which of my actions provide shortcuts or, obstacles?

Exercising power

Foucault separates power relations from relationships of communication and also ways in which we are physically capable of acting upon things. Relationships of communication are used for exchanging and circulating information which sometimes could produce effects of power. Manipulating, withholding or partially transmitting information would be examples of such relationships of communication that we can recognize in our lives. Capacity for physical action also helps us transform the world around us. Yet power relations are different and they are mostly about relationships between individuals, how work is divided, how people are trained, how we manage to get people do a variety of things.

Think of how your actions structure the field of possible actions for others. In a professional setting, making and communicating decisions is an example of relationships of communication and power being present simultaneously. However, you can produce very different effects through communicating one possible path of action (i.e. the decision you made) without an obvious way for anyone to correct it, compared to when you make decisions in a collaborative way where people have an easy time contributing. A single “door” may look like easier to manage to get people go through it yet I remind myself of the field of actions of which I may not be completely aware, or may be partially blind to possible options. Hence, I prefer to exercise power in a way that, hopefully, produces more options.

Freedom, resistance, and productive power relations
Freedom is the necessary condition for exercising power. We are in a power relationship as long as each subject remains capable of acting upon actions, and has a number of choices available. If that’s not possible, then it’s not a power relationship. Then again, Foucault states that a power relation is not a matter of consent: we live in a society and this means we live in such a way that some can act on the actions of others. This is why power is situated deep in the social nexus and, subsequently, cannot be escaped.

As Foucault says, “Where there is power, there is resistance”. This means that the necessary condition of the existence of power is also antagonism, resistance, insubordination. I think that intuitively we realize this, it’s part of our “common sense” so to speak, even if the word resistance mostly brings to mind political uprising. On the one hand, you can observe instances of resistance so as to think about your reactions to resistance; how you resist yourself and to what kind of actions and circumstances. On the other hand, you can use resistance as a heuristic for identifying power relationships. You may not have realized you exercised power over someone, so you can gauge the reaction and think of what that “insubordination” may mean. For me it’s helpful to employ Foucault’s approach that perceives struggle and resistance as inevitable because it helps me to come to terms with it. I naturally want things to be organized and clear, so sometimes dealing with uncertainty, messiness, and other confusions is difficult. Hence, keeping in mind the interplay of free subjects who occasionally resist each other in power relations supports me in having a balanced look on life.

Productive power relationships

The connotations of the word “power” suggest authority and control, often suppression and submission. Yet Foucault argues that power relationships are much more than repressive. Power relationships can also be productive and bring about desired changes and positive outcomes. The effects may not be universal as the network of subjects and power relations is very dynamic.

Think of driving policy and process changes in a company. Assuming that the change is relevant, justified, and well thought-through by the change agents, there will be – you guessed it – resistance even if effects will be proven to be positive. And even if no considerable resistance is present, then policies and processes put in place represent exercising power over many subjects. On a high level, making the ground rules can close down options that should not be pursued in the future while opening up new, exciting, and full-ofpotential opportunities.

On the employee-manager relationship level, there may be agreements around personal development that change the course of action for the employee. Depending on how well the personal development is supported, it can turn out to be a positive change where a subject objectivizes another subject. And then the objectivized subject acts upon themselves to gradually transform themselves into something different.

On the other hand, the managing of possibilities for personal development may be done in a way that suppresses, constricts and limits the available path, or at least makes them unreasonably difficult to pursue. The keyword here is “consciousness” – are you conscious of how your exercise of power expands or constricts someone else’s field of possible actions?

The second epiphany

The second time I experienced a strong click between concepts was when I read Fearless Change by Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns. They discuss change patterns that outline and explain activities that you can undertake to support carrying out changes in an organization, especially introducing new ideas (I have taken the approach a bit further than that). The patterns they have included have been harvested from people’s experience and written in a structured way. Patterns are a way of knowledge management: patterns capture the knowledge and experience of people who have observed actions and activities that more likely than not can help make change happen.

What struck me was that to some extent change patterns look like “recipes” for exercising power. They describe different ways in which you can act on other people’s actions in an organization. Broadly speaking, when you want to change how an organization operates, you need to add or take away options for specific actions, execute power over what people would do. Foucault gives us the birds’ eye view of the landscape of power, and we can borrow his concepts. But change patterns provide us with a practical approach to systematically bring change to life. Granted, the main benefit of the patterns is that they provide an access point to how to act as a change agent in a creative yet purposeful way, and they provide a language in which to talk about possible actions.

For each change pattern, Rising and Manns provide a wealth of information and stories about the typical problem to which you can apply the problem, the essence of the solution and what the result could could look like, and other contextual information.

Similarly to Foucault, people are the focus in Fearless Change because Manns and Rising name the change agent, culture and people as the three key components of change. In Foucault’s world everyone is a subject which translates into having potential of being a change agent. Culture provides the context and affects the ease or difficulty with which change can happen in an organization. Culture consists of all kinds of assumptions and beliefs that affect the behavior of each and every individual every day. Hence, managing the field of possible actions has impact on culture.

To draw another parallel, you can approach studying an organization by looking at the org chart. The question is how much does this tell you about the power network and how things actually get done. When you adopt Foucault’s approach and study the individuals as subjects, you can learn a lot about the dynamics of power: what shapes the individual’s decision making, priorities, goals; what they resist and what they find easy to accomplish.

Some examples

One of the mantras of getting any organizational change through is that you need to get the support from a high-level executive. This is what Manns and Rising call the Corporate Angel pattern. I have a few different occasions in which I’ve found this pattern to be useful. For example, on my first job as a test lead, I had to build up the testing practice in the organization from scratch and make testing work in a way that it would have an impact on the product stability and quality. Since I hadn’t tested or led a team before, my success was partially determined by the support I got from key decision makers. In that situation I had my boss behind my back along the way while there were other managers who either had a very hard time understanding why these changes had to be made or they actively tried to undermine my role and work. Having “someone have your back” is a colloquial way of expressing what Foucault would say: a subject acted upon the field of possible actions of me and other subjects in a goal-oriented way which kept open certain paths to action for me while closed down some possible actions for others.

On the flip side, I’ve also experienced how someone who seemed to appear like a corporate angel may not turn out to be one for real. How did I figure that out? It was quite simple after a while: when my field of possible actions didn’t expand or change so that I could better move towards achieving my goals, it dawned on me that the power exercised over me has unproductive effects. Hence, in my judgment, this person did not fall under the Corporate Angel pattern.

Another powerful pattern is Ask For Help. It sounds incredibly obvious and such a paragorn of common sense that it may not seem worth talking about. But I think it is. Asking for help, involving other people is a way how to change the field of possible actions for people in a way that can make it more likely to get a change through. Many a time I’ve felt alone in my efforts and I guess sometimes my efforts have not been effective at times. Yet asking for help typically gets me some kind of response or aid that helps me move forward. I exercise power over other subjects to insert the opportunity of collaboration in their field of actions. And on the reverse side, they get to influence me and how I act.

Early Adopters and Connectors are also patterns I have used. Getting an organization that never really paid any mind to testing to take testing seriously was a real challenge. Therefore, it was important for me to find people who would collaborate with me and help me show how testing provides value. The obvious targets were friendly developers who worked on some major functionalities of the software. Getting them to adopt the test process I proposed, and making use of the information that testing brought on the table, made it possible to show some positive results for the quality of the product. I acted upon the developers’ actions by adding new options for action and making it easy to take them. And the early adopters were knowledgeable, wellrespected and connected to others, so the new type of actions in the new kind of development process could develop a wider reach without my immediate presence. The early adopters also helped to overcome resistance, albeit slowly, because the different type of actions they took in terms of testing and collaboration (compared to the past) continuously improved quality and, consequently, customer satisfaction. This is also where I perceive some positive effects of power relations.

Some final yet inconclusive thoughts

I hope that this meditation took you on a different kind of journey into power than you’ve been on before. Philosophy may help answer some questions but it surely does raise new ones. Over the years I’ve pondered Foucault a lot and as I add new layers of knowledge, there are also new considerations that have surfaced. I haven’t discussed all aspects of power relations that Foucault has written about in the attempt of consolidating the core concepts for the purposes of this article. So taking a few tentative steps in a new direction, I wanted to point out that achieving organizational change only through exercising power over subjects one at a time is an accessible yet not always the most effective option.

Applying systems thinking on top of everything discussed above, makes another great mental exercise because it helps to raise a few interesting questions such as how should we change interactions within an organization to accelerate change; and what are the possible “leverage points” for effective change? Donella H. Meadows discusses deep and shallow leverage points – places to intervene in a system. To achieve sustainable and effective change, one should go for impacting the intent of and design of the organization which provide deep leverage points. This is somewhat similar to how Foucault discusses forms of institutionalization and types of objectives when discussing the analysis of power relations. I find this to be another fascinating line of thought to pursue.

But for now, I hope I have through this act of communication had an impact on how you think of power. And maybe this will have added more options to your field of possible actions.

References

  • Foucault, Michel. 2002. Essential Works of Foucault 1954 – 1985. Vol. III: Power. Ed. by James D. Faubion. Trans. by Robert Hurley et al. London: Penguin Books
  • Manns, Mary Lynn, and Linda Rising. 2005. Fearless Change: patterns for introducing new ideas. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
  • Meadows, Donella. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Ed. by Diana Wright. USA: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

 

Article was published in December issue of Testing Trapeze magazine