Managing the P’s in People: Politics, Personalities, and Power
Brenda Kuecks is the Past President of Ecotrust Canada and one of the co-conspirators in the creation of the LEDlab together with colleagues at RADIUS SFU. In Brenda’s words, “LEDlab is an opportunity to really demonstrate the long-term value of enabling communities to lead the charge for their own solution-building”.
“Walk a mile in the other man’s shoes” is a frequently quoted adage about good relationship management. It is meant to encourage us to use empathy when confronted with people who might not see the world as we do. The saying (though it was originally about moccasins not shoes) has endured since 1895 when it first appeared in Judge Softly, a poem by Mary Lathrap. Nearly one hundred years later, in Harper Lee’s stunning book To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus’ advice “to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it”, although a bit less genteel than Ms. Lathrap’s version, essentially suggests the same thing – if you want to play nice with others, you best try to understand the places from whence they have come.
In today’s fields of psychology, community development and social innovation, the ability to express empathy towards others is viewed as a critical skill that students can and must be taught. The starting assumption is that if your goal is to establish shared outcomes, it is essential to ‘really get where the others in your group are coming from’.
After 30 years as a community development practitioner, and someone involved with the development of Vancouver’s LEDlab, I am going to step out on a limb to disagree with Atticus, Lanthrap AND social science! In my experience empathy is not all it is cracked up to be, and it is seldom the magic ingredient in baking common-cause. I say this first because I find it presumptuous to think that we can ever truly understand the myriad of factors and conditions involved with crafting our fellow travellers (imagine this in the context of the LEDlab where graduate student meets long-term street resident!); and second because I believe that by leaning too heavily on empathy as our sharing-tool we risk dulling our senses to the other very important dynamics that shape our human interactions and the amazing innovation that happens when we work well together.
Instead of leaning on empathy, where diversity is the starting point and shared solutions are the goal as is the case with LEDlab, I encourage a more nuanced set of practices for both facilitators and facilitated. I think about the letter ‘P’ in People.
One ‘P’ is Politics – everybody has them. Not politics as in voting preferences in the next election (too simplistic), but rather politics created as a direct result of the values we hold. Knowing whether our co-conspirators believe in abundance, compassion, courage, health, honour, beauty, boldness, achievement, authenticity (or any/many of the 400+ other values research has defined), is key. By unearthing these values and talking about the way they shape who we are and how we move through the world, we quickly understand that they are the backbone of the positions we take. If Person A for instance, values abundance, s/he will tend to lean toward solutions that offer maximum space for choice rather than a dictated result. If Person B values autonomy, s/he will never vote for an innovation that demands conformity.
Another ‘P’ is Personality – everybody has one of these too! The ability to understand and ‘manage’ personalities when operating in a group is, in my opinion, a much more important skill than empathy will ever be. Our personality consists of the recurring patterns of thoughts, emotions, characteristics and behaviours that make us unique. They arise from the confounding ashes of our genetics and our experiences, and they remain fairly consistent and permanent throughout our lives. A personality includes characteristics such as being quick to anger, impulsive, passive aggressive, open to experience, conscientious, neurotic, compassionate etc. In a collaboration endeavour, understanding what makes other’s ‘tick’ helps to ensure that we can support individuals to participate fully, and design processes that enable them to contribute well.
A third ‘P’ is Power. This is one we often try to ignore for fear of being politically incorrect. But for anyone who has been in a multi-stakeholder process, I am confident you will agree that it is impossible to deny its presence (and its impact) in the room. Whether it is Positional Power (a senior bureaucrat, an agency president, an elder), or Situational Power (the only NGO not dependent on government funds, the only person present with lived experience, the outspoken activist), acknowledging and accommodating power dynamics is a big part of successful group building.
Another ‘P’ is the need to Personalize. When a diverse group of stakeholders is faced with the creative act of social innovation, it is crucial that they jump off from a shared information platform. This means doing ongoing work to bring information and presentations into the process in as many forms and formats as necessary to ensure that everybody is operating with a common framework – no matter what their personality, politics or power.
What does this mean for the work of the LEDlab, with its objective of finding/creating innovative solutions to income generation in Vancouver’s inner city? If I am correct, then it means that the lab must continually focus on radical listening, generative curiosity and the never ending search for humanness. It means supporting stakeholders and partners to build self-awareness as a key dimension of building group cohesion; and it means creating a discovery-container large enough and multi-faceted enough for diversity to thrive. This means nurturing empathy but also working actively with the dynamics of politics, personality, power and the need for personalization.
 “First of all,” he [Atticus] said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (3.85-87)
Be sure to sign-up to LEDlab’s Newsletter to stay updated on all our activities!