This past week, I traveled to Michigan to help my eighty year old mom deal with something that was going to be challenging for her. The details aren’t important here but it involved having to appear before a probate court judge in downtown Detroit on a guardianship matter for my disabled brother. We dealt with the logistical barriers relative to parking, walking quite a distance for her, etc. and arrived there at the requested time. It quickly became obvious that about ten other people had the same appointment time. There was nothing we could do but sit there and wait our turn. We were the only ones without an attorney helping us and ended up getting called before the judge last. This provided us with the opportunity to watch how the judge handled the various cases ahead of us and it wasn’t pretty. His disdain for his job was palpable, as he regularly yelled at people for minor infractions – speaking when not spoken to, making any sort of noise at all, etc.
When my mom’s name was called, she asked me to go with her, which I gladly did. She struggled to answer his first question so I tried to help her. Big mistake. The judge made it crystal clear that I was not to speak unless he told me to. The power disparity was obvious and he clearly held all of it so I kept my mouth shut. (For those of you who know me, you can appreciate how extremely difficult that was. Frankly, it’s a miracle I’m not in a Detroit jail right now) My mind was full of plenty of things I wanted to say though, and none of them were very nice. I don’t have a lot of experience with a relationship that is so lopsided in terms of power, so I have spent a fair amount of time since then trying to sort out how I felt and what this might mean in a larger context.
In organizations, because there is typically some kind of defined hierarchical structure, who holds what decision making levers is often obvious. Successful companies don’t use that as a control stick though. They only rely on it when necessary and tend to invite everyone to bring their ideas and energy forward as they collaboratively work on organizational goals.
In personal relationships, power disparities are a liability for all sorts of reasons. The biggest one is that the person who feels powerless, can’t bring their whole self to the relationship and has only two choices to make as a result – stay and suffer or leave. And a really sad fact is that often the person who holds power over someone doesn’t see that this dynamic exists. There is a lack of awareness on the part of the power-holder about how he/she is behaving and conversations not had on the part of the power-less.
Societally, examples of power inequality are everywhere. There is probably an argument that some of that is necessary to keep order (think law enforcement) and most of us can come to terms with it in those instances. However, regardless of the specific situation, when someone comes to believe that they have limited or no power over what happens next, only negative emotions and reactions arise. Helplessness, anger, fear come to mind. None of these add value to a relationship, an organization or a society and are more typically destructive. Today’s example is happening in Ukraine but you can no doubt come up with many more rather easily.
This week, try to look for examples of power disparities in your life and see what story arises for you around it. My experience with this judge has moved me to be more attentive to those times when I am in a position of power, causing me to be aware of what that means to others and my relationship with them. God knows I don’t want to ever have anything in common with that judge.
PS: Now that I am 400 miles away, I have been trying to generate some compassion for this judge. Life is short and he is so obviously unhappy. Still working on it…