Sep 7, 2022

Mind the power gap: The bump in the road to scalability

Hands up if you’re a leader in a scaling business who has thought (or said) any of the following?

“We’ve spent a lot of money to make this office a really nice place to work - why aren’t people coming in?”

“We have a flat structure so even though I’m the CEO, anyone can speak their mind to me.”

“Everyone in the team is leaving bang on time, I thought they wanted to prove themselves?”

“Someone in the team shared their salary with everyone else, can you believe it? I would never have done this.”

Sound familiar? Thoughts like these are a sure-fire signal that your organisation has a power gap.

“Power” - it’s a word that packs a punch, isn’t it? Power gaps are really common, and at Unleashed, we see them show up regularly. But what actually IS a power gap?

A power gap is when a disconnect crops up, usually between people in leadership positions and team members. It’s when there are gaps between the experiences, expectations, intentions and sometimes organisational interests between those at the top, and those who are not.

What does a power gap look like in practice?

Power gaps can often be spotted with new language in the culture emerging, like ‘direct reports’ and ‘upward management’. This can signify that positional power exists in your team, even if it’s not formalised and you still have a fairly flat org structure. Positional power stems from both a leaders’ explicit authority - e.g. their role in setting company strategy and things like hiring and firing - as well as more implicit influence - such as how their behaviour shapes the overall company culture. 

Power gaps aren’t created intentionally and often emerge over time, especially during periods of high growth. This means that they regularly take founders and leaders by surprise. However - they can be really damaging to your organisation’s levels of psychological safety and productivity if left unchecked. Suddenly, there’s an atmosphere within the team that wasn’t there before. A feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

To be clear - positional power is not the only type of power at play in organisations - structural inequities within our social, economic and political systems are replicated, often unconsciously, within workplaces and the other types of privilege that leaders hold can create a whole host of additional complex dynamics - but that is a whole article in and of itself - so watch this space. 

‘Oh, I see… I think we have a power gap!’ So what’s driving this and what can I do?

Although the emergence of a power gap can be disconcerting and can feel isolating for you as a leader, it’s indicative of a scaling business. Growth can expand these disconnects.

In the world of Unleashed, many of the businesses we partner with experience power gaps that are hidden or are slightly harder to spot. That’s because many have fostered environments that are goal-focused and well structured (‘I know what I’m meant to achieve’) alongside a culture of autonomy and agility (‘I have freedom to decide how to do it’). Positional power is less obvious within flatter organisations, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Where does all this lead us? Across the businesses that we partner with, we often notice that senior leaders, whose role by its nature comes with more autonomy, potentially greater financial upside and, for founders in particular, deep attachment to the business succeeding - can find themselves feeling disconnected from their team. As the team feel like they are kept further + further away from key decisions, suddenly there are whispers about “the management”. The leaders are spoken about as if they are an elevated force, entirely disconnected from what’s really happening in the business. With that, business decisions made with good intentions or even ostensibly positive events (like launches of new team benefits) can land very differently than expected. With a large power gap, leaders are often given a very small margin for error. All-hands updates are dissected in private WhatsApp groups. Wins and losses are no longer that of the entire team. Silos form. Communication does not travel. In short: it’s extremely hard to lead successfully when you’re not attuned to power gaps within your organisation.

And it doesn't stop here. The complex challenges that come with leadership are exacerbated by a growing cynicism in society towards power and an awakening of the harmful effects of power misuse. Look no further than the people we see in power everyday revealed as not being who they claim to be, or demonstrating incompetence in even basic expectations - from very public political figures 👀 to celebrities to highly paid entrepreneurs.

But do not fear, let’s say hello to the flip side!

People early in their career are looking for meaningful connections with people they work with, a healthy sense of belonging within their team, inspiring people to look up to and learn from, and to contribute actual value to something in the world that they can be proud of. For many this is a non-negotiable, and leaders will not be able to attract incredible team members and provide an environment in which they thrive for the long-term without this. To support this, leaders need to be engaging openly and honestly with their teams, giving space and voice to everyone’s opinions and experiences, treating everyone fairly, building fairness into the foundations of their organisation. These are all things that can create conditions for incredible motivation, engagement and result in the best kind of workplace fit for 2022 and beyond. There is a way to be connected to your team, understand their context and support and motivate them as the team grows.

So, what can you do as a leader to bridge the gap within your team? Start with understanding and empathising with your team’s experience. Here’s how:

  • Start a reverse mentorship relationship - this is a brilliant way of seeing your role and impact with greater clarity by being mentored by someone less senior than you within the team. Having fresh eyes on your leadership style and a bit of advice from someone you trust who’s in a different role within your team (particularly a less senior one) can create some brilliant ‘light bulb’ moments. You will also be of benefit to that person in being able to share what you’ve learned from doing the type of role you do, and give a broader view of how the business is run. It can be a huge confidence booster to the both of you and we highly recommend it.
  • Walk (or work) a mile in their shoes - have you tried actually doing what your team do to achieve their goals? For example, try carrying out a piece of deep analysis (what most early career roles in our client’s teams are responsible for) in a noisy office - can you understand the desire to work from home differently after this experience? What about speaking to suppliers - what’s it like day to day? Do you have people working in non-office environments - have you tried it? What about considering how you would maintain your lifestyle on a lower salary for a week, perhaps one comparable to your most junior team members? This is all about perspective taking, and exploring what the culture of your organisation might look and feel like if you were to see a shift in the effects of your positional power. Use what you learn here to help reduce the gap.
  • Start to build an awareness of privilege. Your world view will be different to others, and will influence your decisions and actions. Exclusion and oppression occur through the presence of positional power, organisational privilege, and identity privilege - consider the role in your identity when looking deeply at your power gap. Are you benefiting at the expense of others?
  • Open Floor sessions - take your quarterly engagement or pulse surveys and share the results transparently in an open floor session with your whole team. Be open to hearing what you don’t already know. Try not to speak for the first half of the session, just listen. Tip: At Unleashed, we like to use W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking) to remind ourselves to sit back and let others take the floor. Resist justifying or rationalising - just play back what you’ve heard, in the language used by your team. This can be a place to understand and acknowledge their real experiences what’s important to them. It gives voice to things you don’t hear and see. Be prepared to take responsibility for action, using your power to change things for the better.
  • Co-create with your team - creating solutions, changes, processes, experiences with your team can be such a significant way to reduce the power gap. Having the team involved in the ideation and design process of things that are directly going to affect their experience of your company is hugely valuable (we love a bit of design thinking at Unleashed). For example, don’t just create a new process for career development and tell everyone what they now have to do differently (that’s obvs just exacerbating the power gap), but ask the questions “what does great career development look and feel like here?”, “what do WE want it to achieve?”. By co-creating the solutions to big meaty questions like this, you’re ensuring that you’re designing for the people it’s designed for, and you’ll enhance the connection to its adoption.
  • Create some decision making principles with your team - as your team scales it doesn’t make much sense to include everyone in every decision, but this can lead to a feeling of low transparency, low autonomy and confusion. Co-create a set of decision making criteria and use it to make all future decisions. The Ready have this as part of their OS Canvas, a really useful tool to create alignment and transparency on how everything works in your organisation - if everyone has access to this, it means everyone is on the same page.
  • Create ambassadors or champions within the team (ideally one person representing each department, function or team), seek their advice and ensure they understand the deeper thinking behind organisational decisions and updates. You can’t be everywhere all the time, and they can help to bridge this gap with clear, human communication out to the wider team.
  • Coffees and moments of connection with people from across the team and organisation, plus AMAs with the whole team - taking time to meet people who are joining and getting to know them, especially finding out - why did they want to join? How does your organisation honestly look with fresh eyes? Has anything surprised them since joining? Did their previous work do anything brilliant people-wise that we could take inspiration from? And if you’re feeling it, be explicit… What is their perception of power and how can we, together, reduce the power gap?

Even the most people-first teams will grow power gaps if left unchecked. They’re a natural part of scaling, but they’re not something you can simply ‘outgrow’ - they require intentional action from leaders. However healthy your culture feels, as a leader you will be experiencing something quite different from your team on a daily basis. Reducing power gaps starts by understanding and empathising with your team’s experience to create deeper connections - the number one factor that can reduce or widen any power gap! Check in with your team using our advice above as a first port of call: your team might not realise it, but they’re the ones who really hold the answers.

Written by People + Culture Partners Lucy Mack and Caroline Knights

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