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Managing People: Power-over versus Power-with

Posted: 22/04/2015

Some might remember the cartoon where the boss yells at the worker, the worker then goes home and yells at their partner, then the child is yelled at, and later the child is seen taking it out on the family pet. So how do we work and live appreciatively with each other? How does a manager get the best out of the people who work under her/his management? The answer may be to look at the power balance.

In social work circles, strengths-based practice is a framework that is often used when working with people. Within this framework is the concept of power-with, the opposite of power-over. Conceptually it is about treating others justly. The supervisory relationship that a manager has with a worker creates a power-over relationship, but it can be the actions and behavior of a manager that can restore the balance, and ensure successful outcomes for the business.

Classic power-over behaviors

• Knowing what is best for others

• Telling people what is wrong with them

• Telling people what to do and how to do it (being the expert)

• Blaming, labelling or classifying people (assuming to know the truth based on dominant ideas without consideration of unique circumstances and contexts)

• Deliberately or inadvertently excluding people from decision-making or limiting their participation (blocking choice, jumping in or taking over)

• Giving advice (imposing your views)

• Telling people what their strengths are (patronizing, condescending)

• Isolating and marginalizing people (treating people as incapable)

As a manager you are required to get the job done and to meet the expectations of the business owners, and the secret to achieving high results is to get the best out of the people who work for you.

Power-with behaviors can help, and include the following antidotes to the negative results of doing power-over

• Recognising that people are their own experts on themselves

• Listening to their story

• Seeking to recognize and mobilise workers’ strengths and capabilities

• Valuing workers’ aspirations and goals

• Creating a context of discovery and action, improvising and trying new things

• Finding the right questions and relying on a team approach where responsibility is shared

• Enabling processes and outcomes to be determined in partnership

• Focusing on solutions, not problems

St Luke’s Innovative Resources, in its publication “The Strengths Approach, McCashen, 2005” identifies what makes a good worker. (worker meaning social worker or counsellor) If we change the work “worker“ to ”manager”, the following suggestions emerge as hints for managers in following a power-with framework for supervision.

What makes a good manager?

Good managers listen

They genuinely listen

They let the worker have their say

They remember things the worker has told them

They consult workers

They don’t impose their view

• Good managers don’t jump to conclusions

They try to understand the worker’s circumstances

They don’t assume the worker has done the wrong thing

They are aware of what else is happening

They don’t make false accusations

They don’t generalize

They don’t blame

Good managers explain things

They explain what is happening and why

They share their knowledge

They use plain English

They tell the worker what they , themselves, can and can’t do

Good managers are there to help

They are not intimidating

They encourage workers to contact them if they need help

They want to listen and help

• Good Managers follow up

They check to see how workers are going

They keep appointments

• Good managers are professional

They share their experiences

They don’t let personal problems interfere with their work

They remain professional but human

“Power-with is not possible without respect… It requires a belief in people’s potential; honouring and valuing their strengths and seeking to learn from them.” (McCashen, 2005) There is the view that even though we are all unique, “there are more similarities between people than there are differences:

• We all make mistakes.

• Blaming makes things worse.

• We can all get trapped by thinking and behavior that prevents change.

• We can all have difficulties changing.

• All people have strengths and resources, both known and unknown to them.

• How we see ourselves and the world influences how we relate and behave.

Keeping such commonalities in mind leads us to genuine empathy. It also enables us to get in touch with our own imperfections as well as our strengths and is less likely to lead us to be judgemental.” (The Strengths Approach, McCashen, 2005. p32)

Acknowledging that at times managers do need to make unpopular decisions, and often have to take control of a situation is not lost in the ‘power-with’ approach. The concept of ‘straight talk’ gives respect to the relationship and is equally important. Employees need to be clear around the boundaries and expectations, and this cannot occur without ‘straight talk’.

In the end it is how we go about getting the best out of people, and a ‘power with’ approach may be the answer you are looking for, for yourself and your managers.

What are your experiences? How has a “power-with” approach worked for you, either as a manager or as an employee?

St Luke’s Innovative Resources is a publisher, and is a social enterprise of Anglicare Victoria. We publish resources that start conversations and bring strength based thinking to the process of individual and organizational change. We also offer tailor-made training and workshops for organisations across a range of topic areas.

Article by Georgena Stuckenschmidt

Referenced from McCashen, Wayne, “The Strengths Approach”, St Luke’s Innovative Resources, Bendigo 2005.

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