When I say “power,” what do you think?
We often think of power negatively: what some use to dominate others. In their book, Power for All, Drs. Tiziana Casciaro and Julie Battilana explore these problems but also suggest a different model – a power-with model where power builds us up and creates more just societies and workplaces, benefitting everyone. Their work is ostensibly a business book but ventures widely into social movements, democratic reform, teamwork, and individual psychology. In short, there’s something here for everyone. (There’s even a fascinating empathy test linked to below that you can sample – and um, no, I won’t be sharing how I did.) I spoke with Tiziana and want to share with you what I learned from our conversation and from this great book.
Casciaro and Battilana describe the importance of psychological safety. Psychological safety does not mean being cuddly – it’s not about being nice and certainly not about removing all conflict. On the contrary, Harvard’s Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, calls it “permission for candor,” an environment where one feels safe to voice risky ideas and equally safe to say, “I think that is wrong.” Psychological safety requires a sense that we belong and can be ourselves. Here then, is where religious literacy and inclusion transform from being merely kind endeavours to actually helping foster better results from a medical team, police unit, teaching staff or automotive manufacturer. Google (who is a wee bit results oriented), did a massive two-year study of almost two hundred teams and found psychological safety was the top indicator of high performing teams, even more relevant than individual members’ talent. I think psychological safety is especially relevant for religious minorities – numerous studies show that diverse teams generally perform better as those with diverse backgrounds generate more divergent thinking (novel insights that spark a new direction or uncover a hidden flaw). Religious minorities, by virtue of being outside the mainstream, are a great source for novel insights. With religious literacy, you can get these perspectives voiced on your teams and create better outcomes.
A second factor I drew from Casciaro and Battilana’s work is negativity bias. A robust research finding is that we humans register negative stimuli more than positive ones. An insult sticks with you more than a compliment. We often remember bad experiences longer than good ones. Similarly, a negative news story about religious terrorists will lodge in our minds more than other members of that religion donating to a foodbank. However, Casciaro and Battilana also discuss storytelling and cultivating empathy. Storytelling helps address negativity bias by giving us narratives to counter those negative stories. And storytelling builds empathy.
Empathy, it turns out, is not a fixed trait but a learned skill we can hone. Both storytelling and empathy make us feel connected to others and helps us understand them. Casciaro shared in our conversation Gallup’s surprising finding of the number one factor predicting whether an employee will stay at an organization – namely, whether they have a friend at work. Gallup also found that feeling like someone cares for you as a person is a top predictor of employee engagement. Creating space to acknowledge Eid, having a story in the employee newspaper about the dish their mother makes at Diwali, opening a conversation about something integral to someone’s life – all this opens us to each other’s stories, showing us that we matter, and increasing our empathy and understanding of colleagues. The result is happier employees who feel like they belong and contribute more readily to the organization’s success. Sounds like a win/win, no?
Finally, the authors also share studies on how power affects us – it can change us a bit and affect our ability to perform. For example, they shared this fascinating study called “Reading the Eyes.” People were first prepped to either reflect on very powerful or very oppressed people in society and then to rank their own prestige and power on a ten rung ladder. If primed to think of the powerful, they ranked themselves low; if primed to think of the oppressed, they ranked themselves high. Surprisingly, if you then have them judge someone’s emotions using just a photo of their eyes (test yourself here), those who felt less powerful were much more accurate in identifying the emotion. Other studies reinforce that when we feel powerful, our empathy for others declines. You can see how this can make dominant social groups less likely to feel the position of those who are marginalized. In addition, those who feel powerful show higher pain tolerance and their heart rates stay calmer in moments of stress. All of this increases their performance under stress and enables more valuable risk taking.
This is relevant to all sorts of discussions around inclusion. It reminds us if we feel powerful in society, that our empathy can get blunted. That we might feel differently if our circumstances were less fortunate. We can, after all, think about these things. And it suggests that when we free people from marginalization, they gain resilience to handle stress better and perform better.
Casciaro and Battilana have much more to say about how power can be hoarded or distributed in our democracies, our societies, and our workplaces, and that the latter leads not only to fairness, but better outcomes as we harness the talents of the many people around us. Religious literacy and inclusion helps distribute power more justly. It helps us understand one another, to connect more deeply, and to benefit from the varied talents of everyone around us. What else is our power for?
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