Simple requests are not simple where there is a power differential between requester and requestee. We understand that intuitively when we think about relationships with clear differences in power: parent/child, professor/undergrad, president/intern. But in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical organization like mine we can pretend that power differentials don’t exist. Anyone at all is welcome to sit at our Director’s table and talk with her about pretty much anything, so we can assume that people actually do talk about what concerns them. But power differentials are real and present, and they prevent people from responding to requests with full honesty – or sometimes with full information.
Mostly this is a management problem. People in power (if they are people of goodwill) want the best for their organization and the people who work in it, so they honestly do want to know what people think and they make efforts to find out, even if those efforts are blundering. I’ll talk about that some other time. What is on my mind now is how people with power can be blind to their own power, using it unknowingly, not understanding that their words have more power than other people’s words.
What makes me think about this now? One of my people was killed last week. A lovely young woman (who I never got the chance to meet) was shot in an armed robbery on a violent stretch of road. She was on our staff in Nigeria and was headed home to see family for the weekend. Nigeria is a dynamic, fascinating, vibrant country, but one where death comes frequently to people of all ages and callings. That is partly why we work there, of course, and why I do the work that I do. And so, to do this work, I ask my staff to travel within Nigeria, and to Nigeria, all the time. I travel there myself and so do my higher-ups.
Some years ago I was in a car accident on the same road the murdered young woman was traveling. As our car smashed into the one that had cut into us at high-speed, time slowed down, or appeared to, and I thought, “So this is how it goes.” I always thought that at the moment time stops you’d see the face of your child, or your lover, or your God – but all I saw was the dreadful spinning of the car in front of us.
So when I ask my staff to travel that road (both metaphorically and literally) I do it with the weight of my own fear. At least when it comes to travel I have lost my own blindness to the power I have over others, and that others have over me. At this point in my career my decision to take a specific trip (or not) is mostly my own. I will say yes or no based on some wiggly internal calculus of risk divided by benefit multiplied by anxiety and love. But when I ask staff on my teams to travel to places featured on State Department caution lists I know they also factor something else into their calculus: My judgement. My opinion. My power, such as it is. And in truth they may rest too much in those things, assuming that if I suggest a trip the trip must be safe, because why else would I suggest it? But I can’t keep my people safe. I don’t have that power.
What to do? I cannot remove the power differential between colleagues. As I said, in an organization like mine where we like to pretend hierarchy doesn’t exist it can be tempting to assume that people have enough power to make their own decisions. That’s a cop-out, and it ignores our own ambitions, desires to please, and respectful natures. And so I find myself looking intently at my staff saying things like “You don’t have to go. You can say no. Right up until the moment you step on the plane, you can turn around. I’ll never question that decision.” Most of the time I think that is enough. The hardest thing for me, though, has been using the power I do have to take that power away from another person, to ask someone to not go on a trip because I wasn’t sure they would say no to me if they needed to.
These days I also try to tell people about the trips I didn’t take: the one where a bomb went off in the city I was headed to, or the time I got sick just before getting on a plane, or the trip when I got the news my grandmother was dying. There are lots of other trips I didn’t take. But none of them came in the first five or six years of my career. In fact, in my late twenties I recall getting on a plane fourteen days after major abdominal surgery because…well, I don’t know why, really. At the time it just seemed like I shouldn’t say no.