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Power Struggle


Power Struggles

Photo Credit: Ming Jun Tan: Unsplash

Photo Credit: Ming Jun Tan: Unsplash

I remember the tension. The Psychiatrist, initiating the confrontation, brandishing his power, all 5'10" of his height stretched to it's limit, leaning forward, eyes blazing. Determined. The teenage, belligerent, posturing back with chest thrown forward, eyes defiant, yet a little afraid. "This isn't good!" I said to myself, a little miffed that the "Doc" had inserted himself into something that was de-escalating fine. Still, generally, we had a near-riot going on on the floor and he, along with everyone, was "amped up" by the threat of what could happen. I watched the teen closely. What would he do?

It was a once-in-a-career bad day.  A couple of patients had tried to escape the confines of the mental hospital, had broken through barriers, been caught, and in the emotional chaos the "whole  wing" of the hospital erupted. Patients were milling about, yelling, threatening, feinting moves toward staff. The hospital had called out the emergency code, "Code 99, all staff to Unit A!" Staff of all levels moved to the unit. It was a tense, highly-electric stand off.

When you've worked in an institutional setting, with people that are struggling, you often have the need to engage them when they are struggling with their emotional regulation. No, I'm not talking about your boss at your workplace . . . . At least not yet. I'm talking about institutions like mental hospitals, prisons, nursing homes etc. Staff in these institutions are trained in de-escalation and one of the prime admonitions is "Don't get into power struggles!" Easier said than done for some . . . and for all in the right (wrong?) circumstances.

A great reason to engage an "outsider" at times of crisis is . . . that they are not part of the crisis . . . and thus may bring a calmer, cooler, "head" into the situation. I was that calmer, cooler head. But this was the Psychiatrist! The top of the "food chain," the guy in charge and responsible for the final decisions. I was a relatively new, and young, therapist/supervisor. What could I do? So, I watched, ready to intervene, and hoped for the best.

I'll admit I was a bit "peeved" at the Doc. Not only did I think the situation was "in control" and calming down, I also knew that if this young man escalated the Physician wouldn't be the one having to handle it. As the nearest "lower staff" nearby it would be me, alone, until help arrived. With everything going on--and the very real prospect that "one spark" would set off an explosion-- there was a good chance everyone else would be busy themselves.

Now, let's be real, power often works . . . IF you can maintain it. Your boss may get you to comply since he holds control of your paycheck. Legal officials--taxing authorities, police,judges, school administrators--get compliance because of the consequences they represent. But, power fails when the "other" believes they can escape the consequences, a higher value is a risk, or one is emotionally over-wrought. Such as this situation.

Power struggles happen in all types of organizations, with people from all walks of life, and levels of education. Having been around academia all my life, I remember being surprised how often these highly educated professionals could act in emotional and "petty" ways--"playing politics" and engaging in struggles for power and influence. They are not alone. Too often it happens in professional practices, religious institutions, non-profits, and family businesses as well as in the "disengaged" for profit cousins. It can get ugly. Especially damaging in organizations that have a more emotional connection such as a church or family business.

"Get behind that carpet or I'll have the staff restrain you!" the Psychiatrist threatened. Well, I'm glad to say, the the young man backed down. But there was a moment when he started to move toward the Psychiatrist, fists clinched, glaring . . . he almost broke. Fortunately, the staff talked through things with the patients and things calmed down. No interventions. No restraints. A good job of de-escalating a turbulent and threatening crowd. 

Certainly there is a time when power must be weirded. When abusive, threatening, behavior promises real harm to others then the use of power to stop harm is necessary. But if you are a leader, make sure that the power struggle is not of YOUR making. That the threat is not just your own perception but real and don't wait to engage an outside perspective to help you steer the best path.

Years ago, I had a son that started "de-tasseling" one summer. He quit after one day. But that was okay, he joined another crew . . . and quit after two days, saying "I really don't need any money anyway, and I'd rather spend the time reading." I was fed up. Fears of "my kid isn't going to persevere through tough times" dancing in my head. I knew I would get resistance--that it would be a "butting of heads" that, ultimately, i would "win" but not feel good about. I thought i should compel him to complete what he started. But, I also knew that I was very "worked up" about it. 

I did something that I never did before regarding a parenting decision. I called my Dad. I explained how my son had started and quit twice. i explained that I though he needed to complete what he started. I asked, "What do you think I should do?" There was silence, then, "He's going to have to work the rest of his life. I think I wouldn't worry about it, and let him have the summer off." My reaction? I must have called the wrong number. You can't be my Dad! . . . But, in the end, his calm, thoughtful, answer "checked my emotions" and I rethought my position--and the power struggle it would be to "win" the de-tasseling argument.

In the end, not satisfied with letting him totally off the hook, I told my son that while he didn't have to detassel but I wanted him to set some goal for the summer. He chose to download a list of the greatest 100 books of literature to read for the summer--a "cop out a bit," I my brain said  as I knew my voracious reader had probably read many of them. Still, it was a productive goal. So I agreed.

How does this story end? Was his life ruined because I didn't insist on him finishing what he started.  Well, my son went to college. his favorite English Professor told me that he had never had a student who knew as much literature as my son. He married the Professor's daughter, a wonderful match, and he is right now completing a Ph.D. in English.

So much for my fears. Boy, do I wish I'd have made him de-tassel. Not.

Power struggles need to be reserved for times when there is true injustices. When harm will come if abusive behavior is not checked. It is rarely productive when it is "simply" a factor of competing ideas, egos, or emotional reactions. As a leader, check yourself. Use an trusted outsider as an advisor. A "senior leader" with a subordinate with this issue? Address it. Get them help. Do yourself and those around you . . . don't amplify the problems through letting leaders see problems as a simple need to win.