10/15/2015 02:24 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2016

The Barbarism of Power in the Workplace and the Evolutionary Nature of Trust

This post is co-authored by Beth Fisher-Yoshida

Companies often talk to their employees about teamwork and building relationships, yet suffer from a lack of collegiality in the workplace. Organizations rely on their people to be explicitly united in a common purpose, toward a common goal and to respect each other's abilities to work toward that purpose. However, this is not often the case. The lack of trust in the workplace causes staff members to feel threatened and insecure and in these instances they look for allies because there is strength in numbers. Aligning with others gives us power just like in pre-state societies when band-level organization required numbers to defeat enemy tribes. Unfortunately, this can cause factions to form and these dynamics can lead to fostering a climate of finger pointing and blame. Everyone is culpable and everyone becomes suspect. It is better to blame someone first before you are targeted and blamed. A demonstration of this happened in the United Nations Investigations Unit, where factions formed and staff members felt vulnerable. There is not one isolated reason, but rather a combination of attributes that create this dynamic of power grabbing. When staff members perceive that nothing is being done, or suspect weaknesses in leadership, they think the system is broken, they are unprotected and feel threatened.

This problem of dysfunction in the workplace is more widespread than we want to believe. Leaders need to be held accountable for creating these dynamics in the first place and not addressing issues of destructive rivalry amongst staff members. There are productivity issues because people are spending so much time not sharing information, watching over their shoulders and engaging in tactics to boost themselves up, they take time away from the tasks on which they are supposed to be working. In the news there are complaints from former employees of organizations about the workplaces they left and exposés about abusive work environments. Recently insiders and former employees from Amazon were speaking of the difficult conditions under which they were working. You could never be sure who was talking behind your back and if you weren't giving all 110% of your efforts you were sealing your fate as being excluded from the Amazon experiment. The person whose voice carried weight had power. The incidence of stress from employment has much to do with us feeling like we have little control, but lots of demands placed on us. We seek power because we think that when we have it we can control our environments to get what we want. Amassing power should not be the goal, but using power as a means to an end. 'Power' viewed as a tool or instrument to craft a shared vision for the future of the organization. The feeling of control power brings us provides a sense of safety and security. Power in itself is not bad, but what we do with it makes the difference.

There are several ways in which people can have power in the workplace. We can have positional power because our rank is higher than others and we get all of the perks that come with this position. We can have relational power because our networks are vast and we can make things happen because our numbers are a strong influence. We may have power through access to resources that include material goods and other benefits, such as ample and flexible time. These days being in the 'know' and obtaining information is power. We may have power because of our competence reflected in our skillsets and intelligence leading to excellence in performance. In all of these situations, access is power: access to resources, access to information and access to the right people.

When we operate from a zero sum game mindset, we are inclined to think that someone else having power means there is less power for me. In this way of thinking there is a finite source of power and if we are eager to amass power then we need to ensure that the power other people have access to is minimized. This means we do not include them in our network or we give them limited access to it. We do not copy them on important emails or let them know the latest decision made that could affect them. We do not give them credit for their contributions and take the credit instead for ourselves. Again, the tribal principle of rivalry and lack of collective consciousness, which only time and human evolution will help address.

However, all hope is not lost. Millennia of accumulated knowledge and experience offers mankind several strategies to help reframe and reinterpret 'power': from zero sums, in which the more you have the less I have and vice versa, to non-zero sums based on trust and reciprocal altruism. In other words, the more you have and the more I have, together, we make a stronger team. This is the concept of 'power with' and is akin to thinking of making every link on the chain strong so we can be a stronger unit together. This is not tribalism! This is the mechanism that has been allowing mankind to move from tribes to kingdoms, from kingdoms to states, from states to regional alliances, and from regional alliances to international cooperation and global agreements.

But what is required to make this 'power with' paradigm shift? At least, there needs to be:
• Empathy - If we look at the recent developments in the area of neuroscience we can see that as humans we are wired to connect with others. Dan Siegel talks about attuned communication in that we shift our internal state to resonate with the internal state of the other with who we are in communication. This can happen if we share the focus of our attention from "me" to "us."
• Individual and Environment - We need to be able to shift focus back and forth from what the purpose of work means to the individual and the purpose of the work for the organization. If we can do this then we have more information available to us to align the goals of both so that they feed each in a constructive and collaborative manner. There is an undeniable interdependence between the two - they sink or swim together.
• Anticipate Alternatives - It is critical to be able to identify the unwanted repetitive patterns of communication we have that are habits to which we default, rather than conscious choices in the moment. We use our default frames to see and understand the world around us. If we are able to consider alternative frames from which to interpret the actions of others, we can expand our range of possibilities and leave room and forgiveness for how others "act into" their interactions with us.
• Flexibility - There is more than one way to be in relation with others. The more self and other aware we are the clearer our goals and values. The more prepared we are the better able we are to be agile in the moment and anticipate reactions that we can then respond to in order to build constructive work relationships. This flexibility comes from both awareness and preparation.

Mankind is in a transition phase. We are wired to connect and we understand the value of non-zero sums but we are still deeply driven by tribal instincts of fear, ignorance, kinship and ignorance and lack of affection. Brain plasticity is as an important source for both hope and human evolution. Through training and practice mankind can develop a much stronger sense of 'power with' and encourage all of us to learn and teach 'win-win'. People will continue working with others in collective workplaces. We might as well make them happier and healthier places to be.

Beth Fisher-Yoshida is the Academic Director of the MS in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at Columbia University. She is the founder and CEO of Fisher Yoshida International, a firm that partners with clients for improved workplaces.