Shifting Social Power Relations

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People are always using their power, whether consciously or not. When their power is not celebrated, accepted, guided, and supported in the service of high purpose, values, and visions, struggles and failures of many kinds occur. What’s needed is a comprehensive overhaul of what power means, and a healthy culture model in which it is used for good. A new understanding and use of power must be adopted so it supports creativity, innovation, and positive, much-needed breakthroughs. What kind of healthy culture is designed to do this?

Responsibility-Based Systems

In my work in creating responsibility-based systems, we say, the questions asked should NOT be “WHY is this happening? or WHO’s to blame?” Rather, “What SYSTEM if it were put in place, would correct and eliminate this problem?” This is especially true for today’s social challenges, whether it’s equal pay for women, fair opportunity and treatment of minorities or corruption in politics.

What I see in the high drama and polarization about examples such critical race theory or the refusal to pass laws for equal gender pay, these come down to the emergence of new human systems desperately needed to solve today’s most pressing problems. The challenge is that these new systems require we all shift existing social power relations, including in our education, political, family and work settings and more. This scares people who falsely believe they only survive and thrive if they win while others lose.

To reflect upon the present as history is to understand that history may now be made by default. Understanding that, we no longer need accept as “necessary” the lesser evil. We no longer need to accept historical fate, for fate is a feature of specific kinds of social structure, of irresponsible systems of power.

These systems can be changed. Fate can be transcended. We must come to understand that while the domain of fate is diminishing, the exercise of responsibility is also diminishing and in fact becoming organized as irresponsibility. We must hold men of power variously responsible for pivotal events, we must unmask their pretentions – and often their own mistaken convictions- that they are not responsible. Our politics, in short, must be the politics of responsibility.”

― C. Wright Mills, American Sociologist and writer

The reason critical race theory (for example), is a source of heated debate is that there is a real battle between conventional social power structures and those becoming evidently necessary. Alfred Adler, a psychologist during the time of Freud and Jung, did not get as much press during his life because to understand his concepts about what’s needed to foster healthy human beings, would threaten the very power structures we’ve had in place for centuries.

Now, it is becoming highly evident that these structures have cost us all and have prevented us from managing complexity, diversity and solving crucial local and global problems like climate change, poverty, clean water and maintaining democracy. This makes many complicit in being fearful, tribal, self-centered, scarcity-minded and corrupt. Despite this, too many people are holding onto the status quo with a death grip, while others seek to teach and promote essential, evolving, life-enhancing, innovative social power relations desperately needed.

The divides could not be more evident; those threatened by (and kicking and screaming to resist) changes seeking to be birthed at this time and those ready for change. The new model needed includes shared power, self-organizing and self-governing, freedom with responsibility, purpose-orientation, agility, and holistic functioning. Those who fear worry about loss of status, advantage and a way of life they have idealized while continuously numbing themselves to their consciences, turning a blind eye to the wellbeing of others. Everything from this rots.

It’s easy to position this fear of change by focusing on some idea such as critical race theory will make children hate their country or many adults must now be racist or privileged, or that by helping people of all ages lead and follow equally that somehow ALL HELL WILL BREAK LOOSE! People are offended because they are now being asked to see the current state of life for many others as well as our planet. There is no more disguising of disparities if one looks at reality, even minimally. Resistant people are missing the most important fact.

Today’s problems and mental health epidemic will continue unless we must live in a world that supports who we are ALL at our best. Otherwise, we become debilitated in every meaningful way. This includes economically, physically, emotionally, socially, environmentally, technologically. We foster and remain stunted. By holding onto the existing social power relations, we are weaker, more destructive and violent, compelled to maintain coercion and power-over and power-under and win/lose. These breed fear, hostility, revenge, resentment and anger in all corners, because the structure of win/lose thinking and behaving is at the root of all of our preventable conditions and failing systems.

I write this because today’s social change movements are needed in our communities and workplaces. We cannot allow defensiveness and hurt ego feelings make us blind to the faulty systems in which too many people cling. Instead, apply compassion and curiosity, asking, “What system if put in place, would correct and eliminate these problems?” We must evolve or we perish. Choose to evolve now. Call me if I can help.

This article is published in St. Louis Small Business Monthly in the column The Extraordinary Workplace, July 2021.

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