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How About Power for All?

By Brian Carwana

When you hear the word “power,” what do you think?

We often think of power negatively: what some use to dominate others. In their book, Power for All, Drs. Tiziana Casciaro and Julie Battilana explore these problems while also suggesting a different model – a power-with model where power builds us up and creates more just societies and workplaces, benefitting everyone. Their work is ostensibly a business book but ventures widely into social movements, democratic reform, teamwork, and individual psychology. In short, there’s something here for everyone. (There’s even a fascinating empathy test linked to below that you can sample.) I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with Tiziana and want to share with you what I learned from our conversation and from this great book.

Psychological safety is the key to exceptional teamwork.

Casciaro and Battilana describe the importance of psychological safety. Psychological safety does not mean being soft or permissive. It’s not about being nice and certainly not about avoiding conflict. On the contrary, Harvard’s Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, calls it “permission for candor,” an environment where one feels safe to voice both risky ideas and to say, “I think that’s wrong.” Psychological safety is that sense that we belong and can be ourselves.

Here then, is where religious literacy and inclusion transform from being merely kind endeavours to actually helping foster better organizational results. Google did a massive two-year study of almost two hundred teams and found psychological safety was the top indicator of high performing teams, even more relevant than individual members’ talent. I think psychological safety is especially relevant for religious minorities. Numerous studies show that diverse teams generally perform better because those with diverse backgrounds generate more divergent thinking by offering novel insights that spark a new direction or uncover a hidden flaw. Religious minorities, by virtue of being outside the mainstream, are potentially a great source for novel insights. Religious inclusion creates opportunities to invite and nurture diverse perspectives within and across teams, creating better outcomes.

Author Dr. Tiziana Casciaro of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Casciaro and Battilana’s work also illuminates negativity bias. A robust research finding is that we humans register negative stimuli more than positive ones. An insult sticks with you more than a compliment. Similarly, a negative news story about religious terrorists will lodge in our minds more than other members of that religion donating to a foodbank. However, Casciaro and Battilana also discuss storytelling and cultivating empathy. Storytelling helps address negativity bias by giving us narratives to counter those negative stories. And storytelling builds empathy.

Empathy, it turns out, is not a fixed trait but a learned skill we can hone. Both storytelling and empathy make us feel connected to others and helps us understand them. Casciaro shared in our conversation Gallup’s surprising finding of that the number one factor predicting whether an employee will stay at an organization is whether they have a friend at work. Gallup also found that feeling like someone cares for you as a person is a top predictor of employee engagement. Creating space to acknowledge and celebrate religious observations and nurture religious inclusion can open us to each other’s stories, showing us that we matter, and increasing our empathy and understanding of colleagues. The result is happier employees who feel like they belong and contribute more readily to the organization’s success.

Finally, the authors also share studies on how power affects us and our ability to perform. For example, they shared this fascinating study called “Reading the Eyes.” People were first prepped to either reflect on very powerful or very oppressed people in society and then to rank their own prestige and power on a ten rung ladder. If primed to think of the powerful, they ranked themselves low; if primed to think of the oppressed, they ranked themselves high. Surprisingly, if you then have them judge someone’s emotions using just a photo of their eyes (test yourself here), those who felt less powerful were much more accurate in identifying the emotion. Other studies reinforce that when we feel powerful, our empathy for others declines. You can see how this can make dominant social groups less likely to feel the position of those who are marginalized. In addition, those who feel powerful show higher pain tolerance and their heart rates stay calmer in moments of stress. All of this increases their performance under stress and enables more valuable risk taking.

Oddly, how powerful we feel affects our ability to read the emotions in a person’s eyes.

In terms of inclusion, these surprising results show that if we feel powerful in society, our empathy can get blunted. Knowing this, of course, offers us the opportunity to act differently. And it suggests that when we free people from marginalization, they gain resilience to handle stress better and perform better.

Casciaro and Battilana say much more about how power can be hoarded or distributed in our democracies, our societies, and our workplaces, and that the latter leads not only to fairness, but better outcomes as our teams are more empowered to share their talents. Religious literacy and inclusion helps distribute power more justly. It helps us understand one another, to connect more deeply, and to benefit from the varied talents of everyone around us. What else is our power for?

This Insight is adapted from an earlier blog post on found here.


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