POWER AND HIERARCHY
Sonia March Nevis and Joseph Melnick
Sonia: Let’s talk about power and hierarchy.
Joe: The higher we are in the hierarchy, the more power we have. Power allows me to make my own decisions. I don’t have to wait. I get to decide what we have to do and you don’t.
Sonia: This is true in families and organizations. That’s why I don’t like talking about hierarchy without also talking about power.
Joe: Of course with families, the relational hierarchy is always shifting in response to the development stages of the children. It shifts in organizations too as a function of changing situations, tasks, and working relationships.
Sonia: I saw two women yesterday whose mothers made their life miserable. So many women don’t know how to raise children. They don’t know how to manage the hierarchy. Parents sometimes give it up, they give away the power—the power to decide and influence. And sometimes parents do the opposite; they become rigidly hierarchical.
Joe: It’s hard to talk about hierarchy and power without focusing on the culture and goals of the organization. Often in non-profits or volunteer organizations, the hierarchical relationship and the ability to influence is fuzzy. In military organizations or surgical units hierarchy and power tend to be clearer and more fixed.
Sonia: A place where we get into trouble stems from the fact that many of our beliefs about power and hierarchy are shaped in our childhood.
Joe: Yes, when I teach this module with one of our colleagues we talk about the differences in our growing up. She grew up Catholic with nuns for aunts and became a nurse. She was taught to respect positional power and hierarchy. As a student nurse she was taught to exit the elevator if it was full and a physician was waiting to get in.
My upbringing was very different. My father was anarchistic; a union man with a chip on his shoulder—and a hater of fixed hierarchy. I remember the controversy I stirred within the faculty when, as a young assistant professor, I insisted that graduate students call me by my first name. Now my granddaughter, age eight, goes to a private school where the children call their teachers and administrators by their first names.
Sonia: I grew up with no hierarchy. My father disappeared when my mother died and I was sent to live with a series of families as an outsider. Because I was “temporary,” I didn’t have to conform or rebel.
Joe: My parents had a disrespect for hierarchy so I didn’t have to rebel against them. But when I see a hierarchy that is rigid, my belly tightens up and my adolescent self reemerges.
Sonia: I just ignore it.
Joe: I remember when we invited the leadership group of a police department to spend a day with us as clients so our students could practice our model1. The chief walked in with his flip chart and markers. With barely a hello, he ignored you and our students and began organizing the day.
Sonia: Yes, I remember. He said nothing to me. He jumped right over me and started taking over the class. I went up to him and explained that we were similar. That outside he is the chief and people need to follow him. But in here I am in charge and he needs to follow me. I went higher than him for the moment. I had to take my power. I needed to be higher than him for us all, including the police and students to have a good experience. Otherwise no one would listen to me. Luckily he smiled, handed me the marker, giving me permission to be the leader.
Joe: You took your power and he allowed you to take it and to lead. Sometimes you have to take a risk.
Sonia: Normally, as a consultant coach or therapist, one of the first tasks is to be the leader. Usually I speak to the leader off line, prior to the first meeting, in order to create enough trust for him to let me lead. But this wasn’t true in this case. We were all strangers to each other. If it is done well, you are aligned with the top of the hierarchy, and if you don’t shame them, they will support your work.
Joe: Yes, and it isn’t just the leader who you need to get to follow you. I remember working with a group of litigators once and one of the lawyers opened up a newspaper and started reading it just as I began to talk. I was first startled. I then began walking around the room continuing to talk. When I got to him I firmly took the newspaper, folded it up and placed it next to him. I didn’t want to fight with him or humiliate him. I said nothing, and neither did anyone else. We were all fine after that.
Sonia: Yes, there is often a “magic moment” when the hierarchy and power relationship shifts. It is often non-verbal.
Joe: Yes. With families that are physically abusive, it might involve a child just standing tall and looking the parent in the eye while being hit.
1 In our Center we offer a one-week practicum applying the Cape Cod Model in organizations. We invite leadership teams of organizations to receive a free day of consultation from our students.