Acknowledge your power in the workplace and strive to have open and humble conversations that encourage other voices to be heard.
I’m starting to see, more and more, why so many people shy away from conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. They’re complicated. And confusing. And as one of my former colleagues once said, it’s easy when the decision making is clear—when there’s a distinct right and wrong, a simple “this way” or “that.” It’s the shades of gray or the competing values that make decisions and the discussions that surround them tough.
I was feeling this way recently when I was talking with a colleague of mine about power differentials. Specifically, mine. As the relatively new CEO at Quantum Governance, my colleague was making the point that, like it or not, I was now seen as someone with power over my coworkers.
But at some point, we’ve all had some power over someone or something else—whether it’s our employees, our children, students that we’ve taught … even our pets. (Although my dog, Toby, regularly ignores me like a toddler in a candy store.) Some revel in it, while others would rather not acknowledge it. And some use it to support those with less.
My entire life, I’ve aspired to grow up in the spitting image of my father—probably the most humble person I’ve ever known. Many claim humility, but few actually live it authentically and actively. I believe it is one of the most worthy endeavors to which one can aspire.
The word “humble” has modest beginnings. Its Latin origins stem from the word “humus,” meaning ground or “humilis” meaning “low” or “lowly.” In fact, in Graeco Roman ethics, being humble was definitely not a good thing. If you expressed humility before someone who was of equal or lesser stature than yourself, then you were considered “debased.”
But that’s not what my father thought or what he, as a minister, taught his flock or his four daughters, and the notion of my having some sort of “power” or that a kind of differential resided in me made me uncomfortable. Even the mere discussion of it felt somehow disrespectful of my colleagues.
Inside, I certainly don’t feel different. Sure, I make decisions for the firm and for our clients on a daily basis. And I feel fully comfortable doing so. I always have. But I believe to my core that my voice is simply one of many, that good ideas can and should come from everyone and anyone in the room. Yes, I’m opinionated, but I love it when someone challenges me, too. I shudder to think that anyone on our team would see a difference in me and, as a result, remain silent. And yet, it happens all too often. It happens to me, and I’m sure that it’s happened to you.
But here’s the thing. It’s there, whether I like it or not. I am the CEO. I am—except for our founder, the oldest person on the team—the second most experienced. I’m the ultimate decision-maker. And there’s no getting around those facts, regardless of how I feel about them.
So, what am I to do? What are any of us who hold some sort of “power” to do?
First, be conscious of it. Don’t assume, like I did, that just because you don’t like it that it’s not there. Second, be open to conversations about it, even when it makes you uncomfortable. In fact, be the one to raise them. Calling out the differences can make it easier for those around you, those who may have less “power,” to feel more comfortable sharing their voices. Third, ensure that you take time to reflect on your own thoughts and feelings about it. Fourth, and most importantly, as my father always did, choose humility.
Jennie Boden is the CEO of Quantum Governance L3c. Boden has more than 30 years of experience in the credit union and nonprofit sectors and served as the chief staff officer for two nonprofits before coming to Quantum Governance.
Quantum Governance provides credit unions, corporations, nonprofits, associations and governmental entities with strategic, cost-effective governance, ethics and management consulting, facilitation and evaluation. With more than 60 percent of Quantum Governance’s clients representing credit unions, the organization fields more engagements in the credit union community than in any other. Quantum Governance is a CUES strategic partner in the field of governance and is home to more strategic governance experience than any other practice in the country. The firm is a unique L3C organization that integrates the best elements of both the for- and non-profit communities into one practice. It is a low-profit, limited-liability service organization dedicated to the public good and one of the very first such legal hybrid organizations in the United States.