Positive Power Dynamics

“Time and again, despite differences in the context of the relationships, students characterized their worst relationships as unequal and unfair. These types of relationships made people feel diminished, inferior, weak, and violated.” (Goodman, 2000, p. 197)

It’s not at all surprising to me that people describe the worst relationships that they’ve had as being one-sided or feeling inferior to another person. This makes total sense to me. Being taken advantage of in a relationship (whether romantic, work, friendship, etc.) would sour that entire experience. Feeling that one person is more invested in extracting some kind of advantage from you kills any kind of trust. All of this seems obvious, but how does it influence relationships with students. How do student affairs educators reinforce these dynamics with ourselves and with our students? Leadership can sometimes be thought of as “taking control” and that could reflect these issues:

“a) use intimidation, domination, and manipulation to maintain an unequal, unjust relationship and to resolve conflicts; b) concert differences into right and wong, good and bad, better and worse; c) make one person feel more competence and complete and the other feel more incompetent and incomplete; d) generate what Abraham Maslow (1968) calls “deficit motivations” for the subordinate parties (such as fear, insecurity, shame, distrust of self, and mistrust of others) and the dominant parties (such as selfishness, intolerance, anger, arrogance); e) draw on the widespread cultural belief that supports dominance.” (Kogel, 1998, p. 29)

These can negatively influence any one. It can pop up between peers within student affairs and make someone feel that they want to leave the institution or even the field. It can happen between students and student affairs educators to make students feel that they aren’t valued. It can happen between students within the context of a leadership position or organization. The opportunities for this negative dynamic to be repeated on a college campus is innumerable (as it is in the world outside of higher education). But what do we do to interrupt it? How can we facilitate positive power dynamics? How can we value “power-with” relationships and disrupt “power-over” relationships? Kogel describes these “power-with” with the following characteristics:

“a) work to promote relational mutuality and to reduce inequality within the relationship; b) value the process of meeting the needs and enhancing the growth of each other; c) strive to maximize productive conflict, to minimize destructive conflict, and to honor differences within the relationship; d) engage in mutual caring, responsibility, and respect; e) cultivate empathy, compassion, understanding; and f) reflect and established cultural belief that support partnership.” (Kogel, 1998, p. 30)

This is clearly the preferred dynamic for ourselves and our students, but how do we encourage this instead of the philosophy around domination? I think it’s in the same way that you create a culture in your department. It begins with the statement of your philosophy (this frequently comes through in mission/vision/goals) and is backed up by the initiatives and actions that you take and your department takes. For example, as an individual educator, I would encourage this partnership culture through working with my students and asking what they need from me. This doesn’t mean that I’m complacent and sitting back to wait for them to come to me, but it means that I do not need to establish any authority over them. This means that when I’m working with my peers I strive to address conflict in a positive manner that is an actual discussion. This means that when I’m in a “power-over” situation, I change my approach to demonstrate that I’m here to develop a caring and supportive partnership with students rather than telling them what to do. This shift means thinking less paternalistically about what I “know” to be good for them and accept their wisdom as well. This means that I engage in “power-with” relationships with those around me which emphasizes “interdependence and developing the capacity to act and do together.” (Goodman, 2000, p. 193) I think this is a much better model for the stated values of community for which most universities strive.

Obviously this isn’t perfect and I’m not either. The first dynamic I mentioned is the preferred method of business in the US and it takes work to change approaches to interacting with people. But first you have to acknowledge what’s wrong before you can fix it and I think changing my understanding and approach slowly is going to make me a more effective educator and support for my students.

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