I started a Kids City Club for a group of fourth graders, as part of my work with the I Have a Dream Foundation in Oregon. Seven kids were chosen to participate in a series of activities to help them learn about government and how the city works. In one activity, we met with a city planner to learn about the redevelopment proposal for their local neighborhood, an economically disadvantaged slice of Northeast Portland with unpaved roads, no sewers or public parks, and numerous other problems.
They even made a presentation to the Portland city council on their ideas for improving their neighborhood. The kids did a great job, and the city council – the Mayor and City Commissioners (yes, Portland still has a commissioner style of city government) – was terrific. Council members really made an effort to make the kids feel at home. They asked lots of questions, gave them an extended photo op and a tour of the Mayor’s offices. (You can watch the presentation online thanks to Portland cable access).
Having just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers a few weeks before, I was keenly aware of what was being modeled for these kids – the ease of interacting with authority figures. Gladwell shows how class intersects with intelligence; people who have little experience interacting with authority, or who don’t feel entitled to speak up or ask for things can’t operate as well in the world, no matter what their intelligence. He gives a terrific example in the difference between Robert Oppenheimer, who talked his way back into graduate school after poisoning his teacher, and Christopher Langan, with the highest IQ in America. Langan ended up dropping out of school because his mother hadn’t completed his scholarship form correctly. And he didn’t believe he could challenge the school authority.
As the council members were still gathering, my kids started whispering to me, “which one is the Mayor?” and “Who’s that man? What does he do?” So I urged them to go on up and say “hi” and ask questions. “That’s their job,” I said, “to serve the public. That’s you, by the way, you’re the public.” Â After much giggling and whispering and daring each other, a group of them went up to the council table and asked their questions.
I grew up used to displays of formal power. My father was the newspaper publisher in a small town, and by the time I was 10, I didn’t think much of walking into any office of someone in authority. Yet in the Portland City Hall, I was struck by the formality and stuffiness of the council chambers, perhaps seeing it through my 10 year olds’ eyes. Dark wood paneled walls, elevated council podium, tiered rows for audience members, my kids were awed, and to a degree, so was I. Though the council members did their best to alleviate our nervousness, and put us at ease, nonetheless, I had to make an effort, and so did my kids, to surmount the trappings of power to go toe-to-toe with the situation.
There is power explicated – terms of address, rules of behavior, protocols for running the council meeting – and then there are implicit rules of power. I think it’s these non-verbal dimensions of power that keep people from participating, that keep people out. When power is hidden, it can’t be contested. What’s more, when the game rules aren’t known, people don’t know how to act because they aren’t informed about the meaning of their actions. Every action has a meaning in a given context, and the game rules let you know what you can do, and what it means in that context.
In the process of democratization this is called transparency, and was part of the lengthy and bloody process of legitimizing power: framing the scope and use of power, making decision-making powers transparent and creating procedures for consensus, feedback and rebuttal. Here’s a mundane example. You walk into someone’s house as their guest. You sit at the kitchen table, and look around to see coffee cups on the counter, fresh coffee in the pot and your host says, “Make yourself at home,” but makes no move to serve you. You sit there, not knowing what to do. You do not know what “being at home” means. The game rules aren’t known to you. What’s more, your host’s behavior gives you no clue of what ‘being at home’ means.
But if the host said, “make yourself at home. We’re just going to have some coffee. There are the cups, and coffee. Milk is in the fridge. Feel free to serve yourself, and help yourself to the milk in the fridge,” you feel better. The game rules have been explained; you know how things are done and can participate.
The relationship between guest and host has less at stake than the relationship between teacher and student, boss and direct report, or psychotherapist and a client. In school, teachers have to make their requirements explicit, and their grading system transparent so students have the power to affect the grades they receive. Teachers also need to provide means for students to challenge their grades, if the students think it’s unfair. It would be an illegitimate use of power if the teacher said to the students, “I am evaluating you on something, but not telling you what it is.” In this absurd example (which is probably not as unlikely as we think), students have no way of affecting their evaluation, and thus less likely to participate since they don’t know how their actions will be interpreted.
As a leader, using legitimate power means making your power transparent and explicit, being up front about your expectations, rules, and guidelines. Whether you’re running a meeting and you have to set the expectations in advance, or you’re running a government agency of thousands, the more people know what’s expected of them, and what the rules of participation are, they more they can participate. In facilitating groups or meetings, framing invites participation by naming and delineating what the discussion is about, and by articulating the facilitator’s role, and the participant’s tasks. Framing means people know who can speak, when, whether they have to raise their hand, whether they can disagree, and how vehemently. Making power transparent is not just about being nice, but is necessary for increasing participation; it gives the other person choice and agency.
But it’s not always that easy, because often power is hidden in values, beliefs or expertise which makes it even harder to contest or even notice. For instance, power based on expertise makes it harder for people to participate because they don’t have equal access to the expert knowledge. In a psychotherapy relationship, the rules of the game are hidden in the theory itself.Â In the best case scenario, where the rules of the game are framed, the psychotherapist poses her statements or judgments as opinions or questions, giving space for the client to relate to them – i.e., disagree, question, discuss or consider them. Or presents an intervention as an option, a mutual exploration. But all too often, statements and interventions are applied, as if to a patient under anesthesia. The therapist’s judgments aren’t open to debate, and any disagreement or hesitation is interpreted as a defense mechanism or power struggle with the psychotherapist. The theory itself is used as a weapon of power. When power is submerged in the theory like this, it’s an illegitimate and irrational use of power because there is no rational, transparent basis upon which the client can engage.
It reminds me of buying a car at a car dealership. There is no way not to play. I was there for 3 hours, and wanted to go home and think it over. But when I said this to the salesman, he took it as a ploy on my part, and kept negotiating. There was nothing I could say that wasn’t part of the game of selling me a car. I kept trying to frame my statements, “No really,” I said, “I’m tired, I have to go home and let the dog out….” And he probably thought, “Aha, the old ‘I have to let the dog out’ trick.” It was maddening.
Without an explicit frame that makes the interactional rules explicit, there is no “in” and “out” of participation. When anything someone does or says can be interpreted as a contribution, people don’t feel safe, because there is no way to not participate. I judge a lot of my facilitation work in terms of how many people participate, and how freely. Many participants have told me over the years that they feel safest, and hence participate more, when it’s clear what’s expected. And what makes them feel unsafe is the lack of knowledge of how things are run.
Which brings me back to leadership education for kids. It’s important to teach kids from early on how to play, even that they can play, participate, and interact with anyone, even people in authority. But the complementary part of that lesson is teaching leaders how to make the games rule transparent so everyone can play.