Stressed? Let’s Rethink Our Idea of Power
From the thoughtful mind of Dorothy Chen
Lots of articles have been written recently about leadership in times of crisis. The underlying theme is often the same: There is a new stressor in our lives; how can we restrain our natural tendencies for fight or flight, so that we can become more empathetic leaders?
What these articles do not recognize is that our ideas of ‘fight or flight’ are based on dated studies from the 1920s — research that was primarily conducted on men. Subsequent research has shown that women often have a different stress response. This alternative response is characterized as ‘tend and befriend’, which is reflective of women’s historic role as caregivers.
With this reframing in mind, let’s look back at the events of 2020. For every story about fights over groceries, there are as many cases of neighbours sharing household items during quarantine. For every story about racial injustice in the workplace, there are as many examples of colleagues banding together to create a more inclusive environment. For every story about women struggling with childcare during work from home, there are as many instances of spouses and families stepping up to do their part.
Of course, the ‘tend and befriend’ approach is not always the more appropriate response. There are plenty of instances where we need to respond aggressively to threats, where our fight or flight tendencies can save lives.
Part of the joy of living in modern day society is that we no longer need to be constrained by our evolutionary tendencies. We have agency and choice in how we respond, and it’s up to us to exercise that choice.
This is not to say that it’s always easy to choose how we respond to stressors. Especially in situations where there is a perceived threat to our power, it’s easy to default to our natural fight, flight, tend, or befriend responses. This likely comes from a limited idea of individual power. The idea that we have a finite amount of power, which we use to impose our will on others. And, if we’re not careful, that power can be taken away — at which time we risk losing our control and authority.
What if we thought about power differently? Not as power over, but power with and power to. This is not a new concept in leadership theory. Effective leaders do not hoard power, but they give it away. In doing so, they generate a sense of engagement in their people, which, in turn, strengthens the organization.
Paradoxically, by moving away from ideas of individual power and by giving our power away, we end up making the collective more powerful.
In a similar way, what if — instead of perceiving COVID-19 as a threat to our power — we viewed it as an opportunity to create more power for the collective? Especially for those of us who are privileged enough to still have a job, to be around our loved ones, and to be able to afford necessities, this is the time to rethink our idea of power.
This is the time to give away some of our power so that we can collectively respond to the current threat. And, who knows? We may just emerge from this crisis with stronger families, stronger communities, a stronger society — and, less stress.