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The Art of Power

What’s missing from our workplace wellness and well-being efforts? What’s the elephant in the room we’re typically too hesitant to discuss? That elephant is the (ab)use of power and its impact on organizational well-being. Partnership Economics recognizes and incorporates organizational well-being, at both the micro and macro level, as an aspect of behavioral economics.

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We’re all aware of the need for personal wellness, and there are no shortages of everything from workplace apps and yoga classes to programs and consultants designed to help each of us take responsibility for his or her wellness. What’s in short supply, however, are purposeful and sustained efforts to rethink and transform the use of power to have a positive impact on organizational well-being.

Visualize the tension between personal wellness and organizational well-being with this metaphor: A goldfish in a fishbowl can masterfully do everything within its control to be healthy and well, but if the water isn’t kept clean the goldfish will be overcome by its poisoned environment and die well before its time. There is simply no way around that reality. Stated or visualized with this snark: You can’t yoga yourself out of bad leadership or a poisoned environment.

In an earlier post we introduced and showed how the spiritually informed leader is the missing but transformative answer to workplace engagement, a metric of organizational well-being. You can read that post here. In this post we give the spiritually informed leader a framework to rethink and transform their use of power, with an immediate goal of improving their organization’s well-being and a collective goal of improving capitalism.

Organizational relationships often include a power dynamic, which we typically experience as a command-and-control construct. This construct, with its winner and loser mentality burdens everyone involved, especially those on the losing side of that construct. Particularly for those whose myopic focus is accumulating financial or political power, there never seems to be enough to satisfy their cravings. Therein lies the motivation behind the poisoned environment. Present but subtle in the playgrounds of our childhoods, the contests for power become more seen and felt as we mature, becoming even palatable in professional life.

An easy reading explanation that offers a different perspective of the use of power is the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Art of Power, by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Beginning with an early word of encouragement, Hanh says, “It is possible to be successful in your profession, to have worldly power, and be content at the same time.” In support of that statement, Hanh gives the illustration of a successful businessman named Anathapindika. Through each of his trials and setbacks – and we all have trials and setbacks – this businessman successfully emerged because, “[h]e had a spiritual direction in his business life.” What does the spiritual direction that leads to lasting success look like? Hanh says it begins with your view and use of true power.

“In Buddhism, we see power differently from the way most of the world views it. Buddhists are as concerned with power as anyone else, but we are interested in the kind of power that brings happiness and not suffering.” This kind of power Hanh terms ‘true power.’ Buddhists are not the only ones who are interested in that kind of power, however, they tend to do a better job than most of explaining simply the tangible steps to developing true power.

Hanh explains true power as comprising five spiritual powers, five kinds of energy:

  • Faith – defined as confidence or trust in yourself or something inside you, and not something external. Because of lack of confidence or trust, one’s faith might begin with a focus on something external, but eventually your faith needs to be internalized.

  • Diligence – this is the practice of dismissing reflexively negative and unsupported thinking, and replacing those thoughts with positive and objectively based thinking.

  • Mindfulness – the energy of being aware of what is happening in the present moment, and the capacity to accurately recognize things as they are. Much is said and written about mindfulness these days, too often in the abstract and a bit hyped. It is helpful to understand mindfulness as a spiritual power in the context of these other powers.

  • Concentration – just what you think it means but more so by looking deeply, even deeper, into your reality. Perhaps begin by concentrating on your own dimensions of impermanence and interbeing.

  • Insight – the telos (goal/aim) of the first four powers and the superpower that provides the breakthrough ability to move toward transformation and healing.

In Hanh’s view, these five powers are the foundation for happiness. Organizational happiness is necessary to support organizational well-being, just as individual happiness is necessary to support individual wellness. As our organizations' leaders become spiritually informed, they are empowered to shift away from practicing a command-and-control form of power that fosters suffering toward a spiritually connected true power that fosters happiness. With spiritually informed leaders our individual organizations will be better equipped to experience an improved well-being, and collectively we will be equipped to experience a better form of capitalism.

What would it look like for your organization to make purposeful and sustained strides toward organizational well-being? We invite you to contact us to learn how we can help make that kind of culture change in your organization.

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