Book-projects – Power and response-ability: Putting it into practice

The story so far…

Let’s just summarise where we’ve been:

Within every kind of work, every problem – no matter how complex, no matter how technical – can be resolved if there is commitment, drive, motivation. This power arises only from people: the human side of systems – ‘response-ability’ – is what makes everything work. Yet many, if not most, of the methods used to ‘control’ people, in order to control a system, actively reduce the availability of this human power. The result is systems – and hence work-practices – that are often inefficient, unreliable, inelegant and inappropriate. Managing people is hard: and one of the main reasons why it’s hard is that people don’t respond well to being treated as objects, or as subjects of someone else’s whims. By understanding, and respecting, the human side of systems, far more of that human power is released in support of the system and the shared purpose. Hence in many contexts, the human side of systems is the only one which really matters.

Purpose provides the basis for a corporation’s existence: the motivation and meaning for ‘Us’, as an organised association of individuals. Without that sense of purpose, nothing that the corporation does is done on purpose. And the real ‘bottom line’ isn’t just the bit where the finance-figures supposedly balance out, but where the whole of the economy balances out: all of our relations with all of our stakeholders.

Corporations are ultimately dependent upon individual skill, creativity and knowledge. All knowledge is created by people, either directly, or indirectly with the assistance of some kind of information-technology; for the most part, knowledge resides in people, and often only in people. As a result, knowledge-technology depends as much, if not more, on an understanding of people as it does of machines.

People are not assets: they cannot be ‘owned’. A corporation’s ‘greatest asset’ is not ‘our people’, but its relationships with those people. And functional relationship-management only happens when all stakeholders are treated as co-creators in the corporation’s purpose, and are treated with the same respect usually accorded only to customers, shareholders and senior management.

A corporation’s productive activity arises from individual, personal power. Corporations can prevent ‘their’ people from being proactive and productive, simply by treating people as objects. Most still do – with unfortunate results for all concerned. This can be avoided by working with – rather than against – the human side of systems.

In human terms, power is ‘the ability to do work/play/learn, as an expression of personal choice, personal response-ability and personal purpose’. In corporations, ‘work’, ‘play’ and ‘learn’ map closely to purpose-fulfilment, relationship-management and knowledge-technology. In any given aspect of the corporation’s activity there will be a bias towards one or other of these areas, but all three must be in balance for activity to take place consistently and productively.

A transitory balance of the work/play/learn triad may occur spontaneously, in individuals, groups and whole corporations, creating a brief burst of enthusiasm, creativity and productivity. Well-known examples exist in every industry: most, however, return to the ‘normal’ torpor after mere few months, weeks or days. By contrasts, individuals and corporations that intentionally manage their balance of work/play/learn in each domain, and that work with rather than against the human side of systems, can sustain such ‘phenomenal’ activity indefinitely. Examples exist everywhere: however, most are, by intention, ‘quiet achievers’, and few are known outside their industry. So there are no ‘hidden secrets’ to such success: all that is required for success is a full acknowledgement and respect of the human side of systems – respect of the fact that people are people.

The only source of human power and response-ability is from within ourselves (‘power-from-within’). This power cannot be given to us: we alone empower ourselves. This power cannot be taken from us: yet it can easily be stifled and suppressed, by others or by ourselves. All work – work/play/learn – requires us to face the personal challenge and personal effort of that work. By assisting each other (‘power-with’) to face that challenge, we can help each other to create and release personal power and response-ability for the chosen work.

People, being human, make mistakes about power. Corporations and the wider society, being made up of people, tend collectively to make the same mistakes – though often on a larger scale. Fear of powerlessness, or fear of challenge and effort, leads to a desire to attempt to ‘export’ those fears to others – supposedly to force those others to face such fears on our behalf. An attempt at such export may take the form of trying to prop oneself up by putting others down (‘power-over’): common examples include intimidation, bullying, denigration and domination. Alternatively, an attempt at such export may take the form of offloading response-ability to others without their involvement or consent (‘power-under’): common examples include rumour-mongering, misinformation, ‘playing victim’ and, especially, the artificial manufacture of fear and blame. Regardless of the form they take, all forms of power-over and power-under reduce the overall available power. Most energy is absorbed either in promoting or responding to the abuse – leaving very little for actual work. Yet despite the overall loss of power, both power-over and power-under tend to create the illusion that power has been co-opted from others: as a result, both can be highly addictive.

The resultant ‘knock-on’ effect of this one mistake can cripple individuals, work-teams, divisions, corporations, industries and entire societies. In such situations, there are no ‘winners’: everyone loses. And in each transaction we have with others, there are only two choices: create power with each other, in a ‘win/win’; or attempt to export fears about power to others, in a ‘lose/lose’. The simplistic concept of ‘win/lose’ (‘zero-sum’) is actually an illusory form of lose/lose: this year’s ‘winner’, for example, is likely to be next year’s loser.

As a result of mistaken notions about power and response-ability, in individuals, corporations and the wider society, power-over and power-under are more common – sometimes far more common – than power-with and power-from-within. In corporations, the result of such confusions is invariably detrimental to the ‘bottom line’. Hence none of this is ‘soft psychology’: it impacts directly upon all business practice.

Anything which supports personal power-from-within and personal response-ability within a corporation’s members will improve that corporation’s ‘bottom line’. Anything which supports power-with and purpose within a corporation’s transactions will improve that corporation’s ‘bottom line’. Anything which reduces power-over and power-under within a corporation’s transactions will improve that corporation’s ‘bottom line’. And anything which supports the balance between purpose-fulfilment, relationship-management and knowledge-technology – ‘work’, ‘play’ and ‘learn’ – within a corporation, and within the members of that corporation, will improve that corporation’s ‘bottom line’.

Tools and techniques exist to assess, audit and address these issues – the human side of systems. Some are described in detail here; others may be found elsewhere. They work: if applied consistently and with care within a corporation, they do create significant improvements in that corporation’s ‘bottom line’. Yet doing nothing about these issues also has significant – and possibly fatal – effects on a corporation’s ‘bottom line’.

As always, the response-ability, and the choice, is yours.

So what do we do on Monday morning?

First things first: slow down. It’s usual after reading something like this to want to rush in and make changes straight away: but in this case, as in so many others, doing so would be likely only to make things worse. The power-problems in business and elsewhere usually arise from very deep roots: trying to ‘fix’ them at the surface level may create short-term surface changes, but unless the issues are tackled right at the roots, the problems just reappear elsewhere or in a different form. And the only way to reach those roots is to slow down: as the old joke puts it, “don’t just do something: stand there!”

More specifically, this is ‘doing no-thing’ – to use the classic Taoist term for this process. It’s not ‘doing for the sake of doing’, but it’s not doing nothing, either. What we do is provide a focus for the ‘doing no-thing’ – which in this case is those definitions of power and response-ability, and of power-over, power-under, subject- and object-based attitudes and the rest. To make this easier, I’ve collated them all onto a single page, as the <a href=”hstdefn.htm”>Definitions</a> section of the ‘toolkit’. Read them again; then print out that page, write them down somewhere easily accessible or – better still – commit them to memory.

Then, using those definitions as a focus, watch what’s going on around you. Watch all the ‘power-transactions’ going on, at work, at home, on the streets, on the telvision, anywhere; watch in particular your own involvement in those transactions. Note all the confusions about power: note how ‘authority without accountability’ in any of its myriad forms is so often mistaken for real power, ‘the ability to work/play/learn’. Notice too how the ‘play’ component of the work/play/learn triad – and even the ‘learn’ component – is so often rigidly suppressed in favour of ‘work/work/work’; note the real loss of functional power that occurs each time such suppression takes place. Notice the loss of power wherever work, play and learn are out of balance – too much ‘play’ as well as too much ‘work’! Notice the ways in which people get ‘taken over’ by the Mask of some role – manager, salesman, teacher, parent; and remember that taking on such ‘outside’ habits as one’s own results in loss of personal choice, and hence loss of personal power.

Notice the prevalence of win/lose as a transaction strategy: and remember that win/lose is actually an illusory form of lose/lose. Notice the prevalence of object-based and subject-based attitudes, where people treat others as objects, or as subjects that they’re ‘entitled’ to punish if those others act other than in accordance with expectations; and remember the self-centred and lack of maturity than underly those common behaviours. Notice the prevalence of power-over and power-under as a marketing strategy – for example, trying to create a feeling of inadequacy which could only be ‘resolved’ by buying the product: notice how you feel in response to that kind of message. Notice the prevalence of the belief that we can prop ourselves up by putting others down, that feelings of powerlessness can be permanently exported to others; notice the prevalence of the belief that power is the ability to avoid work, that personal responsibility can be permanently exported to others; and remember that in every such incident, there’s a loss of real power – and everyone loses as a result.

Notice how power-over, power-under and the like are almost the norm rather than the exception: everywhere around us, people are trying to ‘take’ power from everyone else – even though it never actually works. Yet notice, too, how in this midst of the resultant chaos, some work does get done – and likewise play, and learn – which means that real power does always occur, despite all the distortions. Notice how and where that power arises – in others, and from within yourself. Notice how it’s created with others, between yourself and others, in cooperation-with and competition-with; and notice how it gets lost in cooperation-against, and competition-against.

Observe all of this, as it happens, all around you, with you, and through you.

For at least a week, do nothing else: just watch. Perhaps write a few notes to yourself about what you see; perhaps tell a few others about what you’re doing, and why; but do nothing more than that. And notice how hard it is to not try to change what you see…

Once that week is up, keep observing, but also notice the opportunities that present themselves, for you to help to change power-over or power-under into productive power-with. When those opportunities arise, take what action you can, to change your own behaviour and responses to those incidents. Put the theory into practice – though note that the fact that it’s ‘practice’ means that you’re likely to make a fair few ‘mis-takes’ at first. Don’t worry about this – in all of history, no-one’s ever managed to get it right all the time, and you’re not likely to be the first! Just do what you can – and notice what happens as you do so.

Remember, too, that you’re responsible for the behaviour of only one person: you. No-one else but you. You can, and generally should, be responsible about others, and to others – that’s power-with, in fact – but you can never be responsible for others: that distinction is subtle, but utterly crucial. We can never change others directly: the most we can do is change ourselves, and provide conditions under which others may choose to change to follow suit. Above all, don’t use this observation as a new means to criticise or control others: that would itself be power-over or power-under – which would only make things worse! If in doubt, there’s a simple test: if you don’t find it personally challenging, at least in part, then it’s probably just another attempt at export on your part…

All of these confusions ultimately arise from a single mistake: the idea that personal issues can be ‘exported’ to others. This mistake is often reinforced by habit: feeling leads automatically to response, without any kind of gap between them. The purpose of ‘doing no-thing’ is create and expand that gap, providing a space for reflection, for choice – and for power. “I am not that which changes: I am that which chooses“: it’s only by creating choice that we have power to share.

When you’ve had some practice at observing and addressing these power-issues, turn your attention to the company as a whole. Does the company have a defined purpose? If it does, to what extent – if any – do the company’s actions reflect that nominal purpose? Does the purpose include all potential stakeholders – or only a few selected groups, such as customers and shareholders? To what extent do you find yourself in alignment with that purpose? To what extent do the company structures and other ‘internal’ relationships promote functional power – as opposed to power-over and power-under? To what extent are the companies marketing strategies and other relations with ‘outside’ stakeholders based on functional power, rather than power-over or power-under? What is the balance of work, play and learn – and hence of purpose-fulfilment, relationship-management and knowledge-technology – in each area of the company? Explore some of those questions in the same way that you’ve done with the basic power-issues: observe carefully, then ‘do no-thing’ wherever you can about what you see.

Finally, in your spare time, take a look at some of the recommended reading. (If you don’t have any spare time at work, just invent some anyway – what you’ll gain will soon repay the ‘lost’ time as far as the company’s concerned.) If I had to pick just four books, they’d be as follows:

  • Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar (, on the principles behind the Open Source movement, which also provide guidelines on how to operate in a climate in which it’s businesses, not employees, who have to earn the loyalty of others;
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto (, on the impact of the Internet on business, and the need to encourage stakeholders to become more involved in the company’s work;
  • Stephen Covey’s Principle-Centred Leadership (, extending his ‘Seven Habits’ personal-development model into the management arena; and, especially,
  • Peter Sengé’s seminal The Fifth Discipline (, which describes the five key disciplines – systems thinking, mental models, personal mastery, shared vision and team learning – which underpin the adaptable ‘learning organisation’.

The websites listed provide further information and, in most cases, free downloads of the entire item or of related material.

The last of these is the only one which is fairly heavy going (though you’re likely to find it easier, having read this, than if going into it cold); and its more practice-oriented sequels – The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook and The Dance of Change would also be my choice for the next two ‘essential reading’ items.

So – over to you. Enjoy!

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