It is a rarely spoken truth. All change is political. Power shifts are an inherent part of every change. As I will discuss below, this is as true at the personal level as it is at the organizational and the social levels.
We know this when we think in terms of national change. Certainly it’s true of political races, whether local, statewide, or national. There is not a broad social movement that doesn’t quickly engage—or scare off—politicians. Politics come into play in school board races, in social club elections, and in community-based organizations. They show up in our religious institutions. Parents attempt to coach their children’s athletic teams, or lead their youth groups, in order to have some control over their children’s experience. Those in power run for re-election to retain power. Those out of power run for election to continue the path of a retiring incumbent, to build on but shift the path, or to put things on a completely different path forward.
In our organizations, we have all heard of “office politics.” Every big change messes with them. While it is rarely, if ever, part of the official planning process, these changes result in power shifts which can be of significant magnitude. One place we often do see acknowledgement of the power dynamics of a change is in the leadership of acquired organizations. While it is not unusual for their contributions to be acknowledged, for a significant payment to be made, and for a place to be found in the new organization, it is unusual for them to remain in that new place any longer than necessary to receive the maximum personal benefit; they no longer have the power—the political influence—they had before the acquisition.
But underneath the surface, politics is hard at work during major organizational change. This often starts in the C-suite, where colleagues are vying for power, often at the expense of the change, and even of the organization they are purporting to serve. Following their leaders’ examples, the politics cascades through the organization as rapidly as (or more rapidly than) the change itself.
But how is personal change political?
During personal change you are taking power, you are giving it up, or you are re-negotiating a power relationship. For example, if you are entering into a committed personal relationship, you are re-negotiating the power dynamic between you and your partner. On the other hand, if your partner is filing to legally end the relationship, you may feel yourself in a powerless position; or, if you are the one filing, you are taking power over the future of the relationship that was not granted to you in the initial negotiation.
Let’s briefly look at a few other examples within the context of changes that recent clients of mine have undertaken.
- Ron had to let go of some of the power he had over his personal life as he went from being a mid-career professional to a PhD student. The academic calendar and curriculum now control his schedule much more than his prior employment did. He had to establish a new “student budget” with a much lower income. He renegotiated his social relationships, and even recast when he would undertake home projects; he no longer had the same level of freedom (in terms of both time and finances) to do so.
- Alice had to re-calibrate what it meant to exert leadership power when she was laid off from a high-level global corporate leadership position and become the Executive Director of a small nonprofit. In some ways she became “a bigger fish in a much smaller pond,” but other than Alice and a part-time administrative assistant, her new organization is staffed entirely by volunteers. As a result, her power is now solely based on relationships; she no longer has the power of authority.
- After getting divorced, Drew left the comfort of self-employment to join a major consulting firm in order to ensure a more stable income. He struggled with the challenge of “maintaining his personal brand” in an environment that demanded conformity. He relinquished control over decisions regarding work hours and travel. At the same time, based on his position he assumed positional power over a number of subordinates.
These changes at the personal level give us much to consider as we look at the role of power and politics in the context of personal, organizational, and social change.
First, to restate, change involves shifts in power dynamics. Whether you initiate the change or it is initiated by others, your life—the power that you have and the way you can execute it—will be different at the end of the change from what it was before the change was initiated. So, the first question to consider is whether a change you are facing (or are involved in) will affect your power, and if so, in what ways.
If the answer to the first question is yes, it is important to spend time with another question. How do you legitimately reclaim power in the face of this change?
Let me tell you how I approach these challenges. This is my perspective; I know it is not shared universally. For social and organizational change, I begin with asking, “What is best for the common good?” If I can answer this question objectively—which is sometimes difficult—I know what I must do. Perhaps it is to resist the change. Perhaps it is to let go of my opposition, and to support it. At the end of the day, if I cannot support an organizational change, then my responsibility is to “get out of the way.”
When I work with organizations, I always encourage them to provide means for people to surface resistance in constructive ways; resistance is an inherent part of major change, not a sign that something is wrong. I also encourage them to offer those who won’t support the change—from the C-suite on down—the opportunity for a “graceful, supported exit.”
Most importantly, the way to reclaim your power in the face of change is to ask yourself whether or not you can actually control—or directly and legitimately influence—the change itself. If yes, then exercise your control and/or influence. If no, reclaim your power by taking charge of your response to the change. That is a power which no one can take away from us unless we allow it, unless we place ourselves in the role of victim.
Finally, if you are leading, planning, or supporting the execution of change, think about the dynamics of politics and power. How will you consciously address them so both the change and the people affected are supported? How will you work to ensure that they don’t undermine success?
What is your experience with politics and power during change? What lessons can you share?