Observations on Power Dynamics

Last week’s workout was about group dynamics and about power. I was particularly excited about this workout because, to me, the essence of group work is about 1. being intentional about the work you’re trying to accomplish; and 2. finding ways to maximize the power of the group as a whole. Shifting groups requires understanding the existing power dynamics (many of which are invisible), and skillfully finding ways to guide them.

How do you learn to do that? You guessed it — practice. It’s the only way. Power dynamics are complex and multilayered, with many potential touchpoints. Most of us are already attuned to certain kinds of power dynamics. However, broadening that frame and finding ways to guide those dynamics in the moment can only happen with practice.

We started the workout by reflecting on times when we ourselves felt powerful. I wanted participants to understand their own relationship to power, both to find practices for enhancing their own sense of power and also to understand the biases of their lenses.

Coincidentally, my friend, Amy Wu, shared Amy Cuddy’s TED talk with me yesterday. It’s a simple yet insightful explanation of how our physical posture biologically affects how powerful we feel:

One other interesting observation from last week’s workout were my bootcampers’ reactions to a scene from 12 Angry Men, the classic Henry Fonda movie about a jury deliberating on the guilt of a teenager on trial for murdering his father. I asked them a number of questions about the dynamics they saw in the scene, then I asked if the dynamic was healthy. The response was unilaterally no.

I disagreed with that assessment. There were definitely some unhealthy micro-dynamics in that scene, but as a whole, it amounted to a healthy, if delicate balance. (Of course, that’s the point of the movie, which masterfully, yet subtly celebrates this country’s tradition of our right to be judged by a jury of our peers.)

I thought it was interesting that my bootcampers — all of whom are women — reacted so negatively to this scene of 12, well, angry men interacting, whereas I — a man — saw something very different. It once again speaks to the importance of understanding your own lens in how you interpret the dynamics in a room, and the difficulty of knowing what’s healthy and valuable for any particular group.

2 thoughts on “Observations on Power Dynamics

  1. Avatar photoRenee Fazzari

    Eugene – the 12 Angry Men reflection was fascinating to me. I’m surprised that you think that was a healthy dynamic. Now the outcome may have been positive, and of course it was a little unfair to only judge the dynamic based on the initial 5-minute clip where things were very confrontational – if you watch the whole movie, things work out as they should. But the early moments did not create the space for people to freely express differences of opinion and I believe this is key to a healthy group dynamic. Here’s a question – if space were created for people to respectfully disagree from the start of the deliberation, would the 12 Angry Men perhaps have come to conclusion faster and with less heartache?

    I won’t even touch the fact that they were 12 angry white men and that a little diversity in the group could have gone a long way as well!

    1. Avatar photoEugene Eric Kim

      I’m definitely biased by the movie as a whole, and so this may not have come through as clearly in just the first few minutes. First, they did give people the opportunity to express a difference of opinion right from the start. They took a vote. Granted, it was not the most skillful vote, as it was not anonymous, and the facilitator was cheerfully dismissive of the one dissenting point of view.

      That said, those differences of opinion got expressed. And even when people tried to dismiss them — either overtly or subtly — others started speaking up in small (and later, in big) ways. It was absolutely a delicate dynamic, but the right things happened, perhaps more out of luck than by design. There was a lot of leadership happening in that room, which is one of the reasons why this process worked. Collective leadership can overcome mediocre or even poor design and facilitation.

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