Anatomy of Power

Power is a malleable, invisible, infectious and multifaceted energy component that has a life cycle. Power generates a quantum field, which has the ability to grow or reduce ideas depending on the DNA (Dominant Narrative Association*). Power has the capacity to energise and de-energise at the same time. Human beings have a special connection with ‘Power’. Power can be both internal and external, it can be manifest and hidden. Power is one word can can mean several things at a time that can be both articulate and confusing. It is one word that can cause wars and deep human transformation. Power is evident and is felt like the heat of summer and the winter chill, you can sense its presence. If we name it, it may give power or take away from it, so there is always a negotiation happening with power. It keeps our heart beating, keeps us alive and it can also kill us. Every interaction with self or the other has power present. People can be born into power and thus may have unearned privilege and access to power. Sometimes people born in oppression and disempowerment can rise to have power. People who remain in power for too long can have power blindness that narrows their levels of empathy and perspective.

As a coach, leader, human, your insight into your relationship to Power is of extreme importance and has moral, ethical value to it.

Symbols of Power:

-Body type, Language, Race, Rank, Economic status, Type of car you drive, Clothes you wear, Brands you use, People you associate with, Spaces/Geographies you have easy access to etc.

Interaction with Power:

Humans and many animals since birth learn to associate and strategise their relationship to Power for survival. In initial years it means access to resources like food and security where the power is seen to lie with the parent. As the child grows the child is able to re-negotiate the terms and access to resources and comfort and may have shared power. However movement is always towards access to power. All this intuiting, sharing, understanding the dynamic of power is constantly learned and unlearned as the child grows into adulthood and happens through a process of ‘meaning making’. Symbols of power are introduced at an early age by social narratives and underpinnings of- what is felt, what is said, what is unsaid and what meaning is derived about the dynamic that co-exists. Usually the goal is for the child to have power as the child comes into adulthood. All behaviours and relating is learnt with respect to power.

Impact of ‘Power’ and its lasting relationship to ‘Self’:

Our relationship to external power dictates our relationship to our internal power that sources ‘Self’. Power has the capacity to both inspire and harm ‘Self’, E.g. You may get inspired by a leader and thus perceive them to have more power and in the process start seeking their validation that ends up disempowering you. The understanding of corrupt power, oppression and its manifestations helps us learn more about who we are as an oppressor and as an oppressed. It helps us learn about our agreements with Power. Also when we see power we could give away our power. E.g. Someone entering their CEO’s cabin with jelly knees.

Our agreements with Power are complex, fluid and depend on our experiences, personal symbols and continual meaning making:

-I want power, I will do anything to be in power, I will be compliant to power, I will rebel where I see power, I will negotiate with power, I will always associate with power and move towards it, I can see toxic power and I will rebel against it, I have enough ‘self’ power that helps me stand against any corrupt power, my ‘self’ power depends on the type of power present etc.

Remaining in observation of power, its interaction with self, its ability to influence, its ability to inspire and corrupt are all important for creating a systemic understanding of Power and thus helps us come from a space of awareness and sometimes a space of choice.

*Dominant Narrative Association: The association that we have with the dynamic dominant narratives running in the society, that can be seen in the collective unconscious as themes and symbols. E.g. When you see a picture of a wife serving a man on table, or an advertisement with many women wanting one man, there are gender biases being created in our mind about who has the power.

Are you a ‘Systems’ conscious coach?

Coaching is often seen as a healing profession, however it is important to look at the systems and context in which coaching happens. Coaches need a very clear understanding of social justice and have the competency to hold cross- cultural, cross-racial humility, have clear understanding of power, privilege, rank dynamic and every coach training school needs to integrate this understanding. Coach trainers and mentors need to be socially and politically aware individuals who understand the design of the systems that influence their clients. (Refer to White fragility and Caste)

I believe impactful and authentic coaching can happen only by unraveling and dismantling the way coaches are trained and mentored. In this article, I have used inputs from work at LTW, book pages 266-267 of Coaching for Transformation and inputs from my friend and social justice facilitator Natasha Aruliah.

Malcom X said “You can’t teach what you don’t know and you can’t lead where you won’t go.”

Coaching is an intimate conversation that does not occur in a vacuum. Each person brings with them, albeit sometimes unconsciously, their histories, experiences, identities, the context and systems in which they are living and meeting in. Attending to and understanding these systems, is a crucial part of the coaching relationship. Coaching attempts to unleash an individual’s full potential, however it is based on the premise that the coach is a blank slate, a neutral being and they can overcome all barriers if they care for their clients; that individuals in relationship transcend the systemic. Coaches benefit from words like ‘self-work’ without really understanding it in the realm of power and privilege. Very few coach training schools bring the awareness of social justice lens in the coach training.

This focus on the individual with little or no awareness and attention to the systemic not only can prevent clients from benefiting from coaching, it can actual cause harm. For some individuals, addressing the systems in which they live is fundamental to successful coaching that meets their needs and desires. Exploring the systems they are in allows them to explore their full selves, what is denied because of the system, the ways they have been assimilated in etc. Given this, it is essential that coach trainers have skills and competence to address the interaction between individuals and the systems that impact them. If a coach is unable to include a systemic awareness lens, they undermine the ability to build trust, conscious agreements and spaciousness in the relationship to bring the -isms that exist. Additionally, in order to support clients and address the systems, coaches must know their own identity and systemic realities. They must examine where they reside in the systems and the impact of systems on them as well as on the client. In doing this crucial and deeper work, coaching could create possibilities that can have impact on the systems in which the conversation is taking place as well as impact on the individual. However, because the coaching profession was developed from a monocultural, Western-North American lens, this work has not been done. As a result the coaching profession is currently not diverse, coach professionals do not reflect the racial, religious, ethnic and cultural diversity in the countries and societies they live in and clients do not reflect that diversity. Many would argue that coaching has therefore become an elitist activity for the few and is not representative of the current and potential diversity of coaches, or clients and world views within the local and global community. Some would even argue that it is part of the systems and helps to maintain the inequities.

Paul Kivel says, “Whenever one group of people accumulates more power than another group, the more powerful group creates an environment that places its members at the cultural centre and other groups at the margins. People in the more powerful group (the “in-group”) are accepted as the norm, so if you are in that group it can be very hard for you to see the benefits you receive.” People belonging to the ‘in group’ are unable to notice how they are the beneficiaries of a system that marginalises other voices and marginalised bodies. This is a global phenomena, applicable to coaches all around the world.

It is easy for people of dominant white culture or higher caste to move through their daily routines without acknowledging their entitlement, power and privilege and this supremacist culture plagues most of the world today.

Maya Angelou said, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”

Like I said before, the coaching profession historically comes from a White dominant culture and is filled with ideas from that culture. It has also stolen/ appropriated from ideas from other cultures without acknowledgement.

Coaching is designed to support the people of White culture, provides little or no help and even causes harm to minority communities. With this in mind, The Coaching and Philanthropy Project was created with partnership between BTW Informing Change, Compass Point Nonprofit Services, Grantmakers for Effective Organisations, and Leadership That Works. This work was made possible by the generous funding and support of W.K.Kellogg Foundation, The Harnisch Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Hass Jr. Fund.

Leadership That Works had conversations with the Coaches of Color Consortium (C3), a group of non-profit professionals with deep roots in communities of color who were trained to become coaches through the CAP project. The C3 members shared that:

1.   Coaching models and frames are limited to the experiences and thoughts of mainstream society whose understandings and business model imperatives do not include the experiences of people from other backgrounds and heritages the world over.

2.   C3 found that many coach trainers are not grounded in life experiences of people of color, thus do not have a positive frame of reference about them and their communities.

3.   The coach trainers and coaches often come from deficit-based thinking and are not using culturally sensitive language.

C3 offered many recommendations to develop culturally, socially and politically aware professional coaches, I am sharing them below:

1.   Coach trainers must attend cultural competency, anti-bias, White privilege trainings and this should be part of the certification requirement.

2.   Unearth assumptions about how coaches’ backgrounds and experience influence how they see the world, and how those perspectives and paradigms further impact the kinds of questions they come up with (or what they become curious about).

3.   Introduce information about internalised, interpersonal and structural oppression and how they relate to our clients.

4.   Develop awareness of racism and its impacts today, and acknowledge it as a reality for the majority world.

5.   Develop case studies from non-profit sector.

6.   Sponsor think tanks, affinity groups and support structures for trainees who are in the non-profit sector.

7.   Commit to offering programs and resources for free or at reduced cost to increase impact and reach to marginalized communities.

(reference: Coaching For Transformation Pg 266-267)

To add to this list; I think it is imperative for all coach training to include a deeper understanding for training coaches and assessments for mentoring. Here are few considerations.

-Was the coach able to pick up the voice of internalized supremacy and inquire about it?

-Is the coach able to discern and narratives that come from the client’s Social Group Identity?

-Is the coach competent to pick internalised oppression, and inquire around that?

-Is the coach socially and politically aware of the system in which the client exists?

-Is the coach aware of the issues and problems that are ‘usual’ and ’unusual’ in various social group identities? E.g. If the client is from sexually targeted community and belongs to a heteropatriarchal, supremacist system then- What are the systemic and emotional barriers that may present themselves to my client?

– The coach has to be aware at all times that the client can do only so much internal work around a system that they are not able to influence. E.g. A POC female client cannot be made to work on her communication style and have goals around it in a White supremacist, patriarchal culture by her coach to get into a higher position without an inquiry around the system and her feelings around it- how the system plays her and uses her every day?

– The Ethics committee should make clear rules around what is ethical coaching when it comes to giving false promises to people around ‘What coaching really can or cannot do?”.

o  Coaching can empower the client to become curious about the system the client inhabits and interacts with.

o  Coaches should make it clear in an agreement with the client as to what can be shifted in coaching and what cannot be shifted in coaching, with awareness of the system the client co-habits.

o  Coaches need to have clear agreements with for profit and non-profit clients around cultural change initiatives that do not consider the marginalized voices of the most employees in the organisation.

o  Coaches who don’t understand the cultural, racial, political and social identity of the client, must find mentors and training programs to build these competencies.

o  Mentors and mentoring practices need to align with the guidelines that ICF develops for coach training with a social justice lens.

I just want to conclude this by saying that coaching should not be used without the understanding of systemic influences. In absence of this competence, coaching becomes an insidious tool of oppression for clients, especially those in marginalised communities.

Power toxicity

My body feels tired and sore, I am aware of a strong feeling of hopelessness about the world we co-exist in. The hierarchical, power thirsty systems that are ingrained in our DNA and drenched in our visceral realities sometimes look like endless black holes. I have a sickening body reaction when I notice the behaviours of dehumanising self or others. It is time we started to notice and understand the toxicity of Power differential. “I am right, you are wrong”  “My beliefs are truths and you need to look at yourself” are classic scripts that run in our system that creates the rifts, dehumanises and closes all channels of communication. It creates power structures, where A is higher than B. Where B is supposed to strive to become A and is never satisfied with being B. A on the contrary has to continue to maintain its position. Both are chained into the system, and both are constantly involved in power struggle. This struggle shows up in our families, societies and between countries. Our world is constantly engaged in struggles of power all the time, causing domestic violence, social injustice and war. However I don’t think we need to go that far, even if we observe interactions between our fellow human beings, we will notice the power differential. Systems are designed for the more powerful to grow and gain, while the less powerful keep the struggle on until someone in power gives them a hand. Hence everyone runs behind power based on who has more information power, decision making power, Financial power,  network power ( who knows who?) etc.

Definition of an Individual’s Power:

Individual Power can be defined as an individual’s ability and freedom to believe in his/her own resourcefulness and wholeness as a human being. To have freedom in creating an identity, which an individual wishes to create.

Factors impacting individual power:

One of the major factor is individual’s own belief and relationship with Power. This belief is nurtured by prior conditioning of where the individual is coming from and how has this individual being impacted by power. Other factors that influence are the spaces that the individual co-exists in and how these spaces either allow individual power or oppress it.

Power toxicity:

Power by itself is not toxic, it is quite energizing when we can stand in our power. But taking away someone’s power or giving away our power can lead to toxicity in relating with one another. For example; Gopal is Tim’s boss, in his organisation he is more powerful than Tim. He makes most decisions, including when can Tim go on a holiday. Tim on the other hand believes that this is the way the system works and that he has no power. So Tim continues to behave and take instructions from Gopal. Tim is frustrated as he senses oppression but sometimes may not be aware that this is oppression, he lives his life as a powerless cynic. Even though it may look like Gopal has a wonderful life, it is far from his experience. Gopal experiences more pressure to maintain his position of power. He can’t take risks and is constantly under anxiety, he feels hatred towards Tim and his inability to stand in his power and share the burden that Gopal carries on his shoulder. However it is interesting to note that both Tim and Gopal have become comfortable in their relationship with power and questioning it is useless activity for them. Thus this relationship continues to feed power toxicity drenched in hopelessness and can create internal violence, which is equivalent to oppression of a poorer nation by a more advanced one. The only difference is that one is oppressed internally and not visible, whereas the other is more in the face. We can easily dismiss smaller scales of visceral oppression present in the system and hide it under the umbrella of tolerance, often calling people who react to it as imbalanced or too sensitive for the system. We design psychometric tools to measure psychological deviations or reactions that oppressed people may have and then train them to fit into the system. I believe that more we hide power toxicity that is present in traces, the more it grows.

I have here tried to put down a few questions, which can help us become aware of power toxicity in and around us:

1. You exercise your authority to make sure that your employees speaks only when you feel it is necessary and in a manner that is appropriate

2. You make sure that everyone and all tasks are completed on time and targets achieved, even if it means that employees sacrifice their personal time

3. You leave no space for unnecessary personal excuses

4. There is no time for discussions and feedback for self

5. You always make sure that you are in power over the employee

6. You lose your temper when an employee can’t perform as per your expectations

7. You have Freedom of speech

8. You feel the freedom to be sad, joyous, angry, fearful and are able to name it.

9. Is there Freedom to be, without being constantly reprimanded or corrected?

10. Feedback in your system nurtures

11. Are you being subjected to depreciating comments by boss in humor or otherwise?

12. Are you aware of gas lighting, thus creating psychopathological confusion in you?

13. there a sense of smallness experienced by you?

Answering some of these questions helps us find where power toxicity exists.

Oppression that continues can create power toxicity that impacts mind and body and can have psychopathological ramifications in individuals. Over time it creates mutation in the system to heighten tolerance of oppression, thus impacting life choices of individuals. It saps individuals of their vitality as they start believing that system cannot be changed and there is a greater force holding the system. Whereas in reality the power differential system is held deep in our psyche. It’s code is held in the oppression that we impose on ourselves, thus feeding into an oppressive system. We are scared of naming the oppression to the oppressor as there is deep fear of being ostracised from the system. The system is designed to make us feel alone in the oppression, whereas the whole system experiences oppression without awareness. When we oppress parts of ourselves we also do not allow others to express those parts thus creating a pattern of oppression outside from inside. We oppress reactive and sensitive parts of ourselves, which yearn for voice and choice, but our current comfort zone keeps us in denial. So we keep increasing the levels of power toxicity within ourselves as we continue to remain and construct systems of oppression.

Detoxifying Power:

Power with awareness of equity of self and others, is pure power. This power comes from a deep space of respect for self and others irrespective of their caste, creed, race, gender, country, culture or religion. It comes from knowing that each human being is equal and everybody’s  power is connected. However this is easier said than applied. If we practice to develop our sensitivity to Power toxicity and are able to accept it and name it, I think that is where the edge of systemic transformation  exists. Ripples of power toxicity that begin from self have engulfed our world in toxic power dynamics that need observation, attention and transformation.