The power trap
I am a fundamentally flawed human being. Not particularly surprising, as I am flawed in the same ways we all are. I am sexist, racist, elitist and will generally look to improve the situation of me and those I empathize to the detriment of those whom I do not understand. To make this abundantly clear, given the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, I scored the following in a racial comparison:
I constantly look to offset these biases. Thanks to the extremely fortunate guidance I have had from my (limited) University education, NPR public radio, High school psychology teachers and other people who have left this impression on me, I have no doubt these biases exist.
This is a story about how I have noticed the increase in social power and influence I have both gained and lost modifies these biases. I hope it serves as a warning to those who might read and find themselves in positions of influence, as well as teach those who are not strategies to generate this understanding.
I think it is perhaps worth taking some time to discuss what I mean by power. The wikipedia definition seems apt:
In social science and politics, power is the ability to influence or outright control the behavior of people.
However, it is somewhat opaque when applied to our daily lives. In my work as an engineer the power dynamic plays out in many different ways, many of which I actively exploit:
- Simply starting meetings in the absence of any other meeting director
- Declaring standards, and providing “helpful critical analysis” to those who do not adhere to them.
- Replacing new tools with tools that I favor
Accruing power is also a fairly straight forward procedure. I will find something in which I have studied heavily, and suggest some mechanism of generating more business value exploiting bespoke knowledge that only I have. Invariably, I am either put in chart of managing a particular service, or am simply it’s moderator by virtue of knowing the most about it.
From there, the Halo bias means that people will believe of me that I understand more than I actually do. Simply not correcting that impression means that I will invariably be assigned responsibilities for which I am not suited. Accordingly, I have power in areas that I simply should not.
Of recent I have been in both positions of increased and decreased social power, by virtue of moving countries. I went from a position of:
- Wealth → Poverty
- Expertise → Skepticism
- Understanding → Ignorance
As these last 12 months have progressed, I have found myself getting back to the social position into which I was accustomed in my previous life.
I have watched as a bizarre introspective bystander as my empathy for those who have made similar journeys has dramatically increased. However, the empathy is not limited to those, but perhaps a consequence more generally of suffering in some particular ways; I understand the homeless and the burning hunger that prevents one from being able to think clearly, the poorer and their sense of being trapped in a life they cannot change and abdication of any future planning, those who have not had the luxury of a good job or travel and are suspicious of those who do. I also know there are many things I cannot know; coming from a place historically vilified by popular culture and being subject to ludicrous standards others are not.
To retain a modicum of self respect, I need to you, dear reader to understand: I either love, or at least respect all of those around me. I wish ill of no one, and when I find myself in a moment in which I am not working to the best of those around me, I feel nothing but shame.
However, as I have discovered over the past few years, this is not enough to guarantee that I will work to the best outcome. Power is a trap.
When I make decisions, I try and make them as objectively as possible. I have setup various processes to investigate decisions with rigor, and try to avoid the aforementioned biases I know exist. The problem with power is that my decisions have exponentially more power. All kinds of decisions:
- What technical solution to recommend and implement as a software engineer
- What questions to pose to colleagues during review sessions
- What documentation to write in the communal docs
- What things to celebrate or condemn
When I am in a low power position, I do not have the responsibility if any of these decisions. I have a much higher tolerance for risk. Once I am responsible for decisions, I fear the personal consequences to my family, myself or my colleagues in a much more visceral way. My tolerance for risk is much, much smaller.
This, combined with some rate limiting step in my ability to objective, is the trap. The problem with increased power and it’s according responsibility is that I hit mental exhaustion at a much earlier point than I otherwise would. That’s not to say that I am unproductive — I can still make decisions that I think will be a positive for the business. The problem is, as I hit exhaustion, those decisions start to become progressively less objective.
As I am less objective, the aforementioned biases start to creep in. I take shortcuts when doing the evaluations, or fall back on decisions that I have made in similar cases. Or, worst of all, I will make the judgement on what “feels” correct.
The nastiest part of accruing power is, I am able to both abuse the position that I have gained to limit the personal consequences of my poor decisions and lie to myself about the consequences themselves. Given the truth of the above, I am destined to become a poorer decision maker and unable to see the decline of these decisions.
This used to keep me up at night. Now it does not. I’m not sure where I am on the continuum, but I suppose this article is a good linchpin for personal accountability.
As I reflect on the different roles I have played, I can see the negative ramifications of the decisions that I make.
In a high power position I am able to make decision, and find and surface those who will go along with it. The problem is, as mentioned, as power increases I will not find those who are best suited to solve the problem, but rather those who I think will best solve it, moderated by my biases.
This leaves all those that I do not know, or that I find myself predisposed to be more critical of in a position of disadvantage. Additionally the disadvantage will compound as I see the success of my decisions, and mis-allocate that success onto my own agency rather than chance, or the good work of those around me. I will simply mentally bury the information that does not align with this world view, and being in a high power position means that I am unable to be held accountable.
All those in whom I do not see myself, or to whom I am otherwise disposed to dislike will suffer.
Strategies to limit power
This article has hopefully been a lesson in the dangers of accruing social power. It would be reasonable then to list some of the strategies that I am adopting to try and limit how far I fall into the trap once again;
- I try and remove any notion that power is something to strive toward, or to feel proud of. We all accrue power as we accrue expertise; it’s my duty to shed it. Holding onto it is selfish.
- Remove both the personal celebratory and condemnatory nature of decisions. By deferring these things to the team instead of personally, power is also delegated.
- Delegate control to a process, and management of that process to a committee. This is an immediate deference to those who by nature do not have the same abilities to influence that I otherwise have, and requires some accountability.
- Set aside time to find and shed power. The above reflections have only been because I find the topic inherently interesting, and have found inspirational figures that have required this self reflection. Absent this (extremely lucky) chance, I am unable to discover these issues.
- While this post takes an extremely critical look at myself, and by extension those around me I think that they do a remarkable job of managing this trap. This post is a self reflection, and an invitation for others to reflect — not to criticize others.
- I mention mechanisms that I have both accrued and exploit power. I do this with care, and have mechanisms deliberately setup to help shed whatever power I do accrue.
- Social power is correlated with administrative position within an organisation, but it is not causal.
One final reflection
This article was painful to write, not because of the realization that I am a flawed person — this was apparent to me quite some time ago. However, the painful realization I have had as I’m writing this article again is that I am falling into the exact same trap.
I have set up ways to shed power. But I rely on the good grace and teaching of others to hold me accountable, so I continue to do so.