power is not zero-sum

I’m writing on the heels of multiple conversations with clients who are getting squeezed by workplace stress, which has been exacerbated, I’m certain, by our collective obsession with layoffs and the recession. (By the way, is the recession ever going to come or are we just going to talk about it for another year?) The imperative to do well and keep their jobs is butting heads with the fact that every workplace has hierarchies, some of which deeply fuck with our wellbeing.

My clients’ experiences are varied, like dealing with a stifling manager or feeling anxious in meetings with management, but at the root of our conversations was the sense that company hierarchy was deeply ingrained, along with all its connotations of less-than and obeying the lines of the org chart.

It’s not fun to feel like you don’t have power. And while you might have less power than others, it doesn’t mean you don't have any.

Hierarchy certainly exists, which directly hurts us in certain ways. But we still have our own forms of power that nobody can take away from us, and which we can freely cultivate and grow.

I teach that power is not zero-sum. This is a Swiss-Army-knife thought that can get you out of situations where you feel scared or stuck. If you can play with power and consider it as an expansive energy, you might find your way out from a problematic team, or uncover your confidence around people you find intimidating.

The oppression of the org chart succeeds when we stoop down in the little hut that its lines have built for us. If you’re going to thwart the power of the org chart, you have to think more like a cat and less like a dog. Dogs play checkers and cats play chess.

This playbook isn’t one-size-fits-all, but take what works for you:

  1. Use your charm, wit, and kindness because depending on your identity, you probably can’t come off as too assertive and people already don’t respect how smart you are.
  2. Figure out who else in your company can be your ally because you can’t do this alone. Your hard work alone won’t be enough, which is something immigrants and their children really need to learn. You need people on your team. You need people to advocate for you. The adage holds: the most important decisions of your career are made when you’re not in the room.
  3. Strategically suppress some of that sweet earnestness so that you can make it through another work day without stepping on a landmine or getting mired in office politics. I get that emotional disconnection is hard for you earnest motherfuckers because I am one of you.
  4. Learn to speak other people’s languages, remembering that everyone thinks differently and wants different things. I am a checkers-playing golden retriever, and this just doesn’t work for me sometimes. Not everyone wants a win-win, not everyone has read or agrees with or wants to practice Radical Candor, not everyone thinks the world would be better with more naps and walks through the park.
  5. You might have to do something without telling anyone because otherwise things will never happen for you.

Admittedly, some of this is labor that falls unfairly and disproportionately on marginalized folks, particularly points #1 and #2. So many of my clients are exceedingly charming and good with people. (They’ve simply had to be to survive.) They’re everyone’s favorite person when they walk into the room and exude a warm glittery glow. And sometimes they forget that or simply don’t see it for themselves. But when we do the exercise of remembering that their charisma is their superpower and thinking of all the people who respect them and want to work with them, a gush of confidence floods out.

But it takes work to be “on” all the time and every spicy peach will inevitably have times where you want to just be quiet, tired, and grumpy. And to my spicy peaches, I’ll say, you don't have to have the energy for it. You can choose simply not to do it. And that’s perfect okay.

Additionally, as much as this is empowerment advice, these are also coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms make you feel better temporarily without fixing any of the underlying problems. It’s like taking an anti-acid for chronic tummy aches because you can’t solve for the 24/7 stress that is making your stomach flip out to begin with.

Self-help and self-care discourse is full of coping mechanisms that sometimes get masqueraded as empowerment. If there is no structural change, there is no true liberation.

The kind and responsible thing would be to build better systems—like a meeting structure that accounts for varying proficiencies with English (assuming an English-as-primary-language context here) and neurodivergence, and therefore allows people to contribute in different ways, including asynchronously and in writing—but we love building shit systems, so until we do, we have coping mechanisms.

And I’m not entirely against coping mechanisms. I don’t think we should lean on them as a substitute for structural change, but given that we all need some peace in an unwell world, we use the tools that we have.

Humans do much better when we feel that we have some degree of control over our lives. Sometimes the feeling of autonomy, even if it’s a subtle, indiscernible-to-others sort, is enough, and a fine place to start, and all that we can muster. Like the feeling of not wearing any underwear under your uniform. It’s not much. And at the same time, it’s kind of dope. Subversion is sometimes the most delicious thing.

I think of power less as a pile of rocks that a privileged few hoard and allocate (though this definitely is one way that power functions), but rather as countless gooey blobs that morph depending on the dynamic. Some are as big as countries, others just small enough to bridge the space between atoms. Start by playing with them and seeing how elastic they are and you might be surprised at what happens next.

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