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hammers and screws

Dear angel,

Don't let the title of this letter worry you - I'm not going to start using either of the items mentioned on you. (Not my kink, not your kink, and that's fine with me...) But, the other day I was struck by the power dynamics in my workplace, and it got me thinking about why I notice them at all. I think it comes down to "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Early in my career, I found myself in a very political work environment. In fact, I found myself in the middle of a political catfight between two women supervisors. Both wanted me to work for them, and neither one would step back from the conflict. I kept my head down, and basically let them fight it out to see which one I would report to. I had my preferences, but I was (naively at that time) more concerned with getting a paycheque regularly than I was worried about which one of them I'd be working for.

In the end, I ended up not working for either of them, and working for a completely different supervisor - one that I had respect for. I thought it was funny at the time - I didn't pick either side, and they both ended up with less than they wanted. One was fired, and the other hired the woman who's position I ended up taking. In the end, I wound up with almost exactly what I wanted, apparently by accident. I said to my friends at that time that I hated office politics, and that I didn't understand it at all.

These days, I've become more ... attuned to the every day power struggles that go on around me. For example, I'm more aware of the power dynamic between myself and my co-workers. They want me to do something, usually for them, and usually right now. When they approach me, they tend to have one of two approaches: as supplicant, or as demander.

The supplicant approaches me politely, and asks for help. They treat me with deference, assuming that in my role as IT Support guru and general all round technical wizard, I'm busy doing something arcane, no doubt much more important than their measly tasks, and that their audacity in interrupting me draw them some harsh reaction. The demanders interrupt whatever I'm doing, and demand that I immediately fix whatever they've managed to break, or do something that they can't figure out for themselves. There are variations on these approaches, but most people fall into one or the other.

The funny thing is this: both demanders and supplicants are working from a false set of assumptions, and trying to force the power exchange to work in a way that isn't appropriate to the situation.

The demanders are frequently working under the assumption that what they are doing is more important to the company than anything that I could be doing. Or they work for someone, and assume that their boss's status somehow flows to them. These people tend to take pains to point out how important they are, or how unimportant I am. In most cases, these people seem to believe that they have some power over me, and therefore, I have to jump to do their bidding immediately. (Yeah, right!)

In contrast, the supplicants tend to be those that feel that they don't have any leverage over me, and therefore, they throw themselves at my mercy. They may be developers, asking me to reboot a server that they don't have access to. Or they might be someone in QA that wants a particular data set retrieved from backup. They tend to believe that they need to show me how much I'm needed, and valued, in order to get what they want from me.

Or, that's the way I find myself interpreting it, anyways. And that sometimes worries me. It's a dangerous thing to let one part of your world (i.e. D/S) colour your entire outlook on life. It's completely possible that the behaviours I'm seeing are the result of annoying personal habits, lack of empathy and outright foolishness. But I find myself automatically assuming that the power dynamic is there. To be certain, it usually is there, if I think about the interactions and events of the incidents, but sometimes it's just someone's personality coming through. It only looks like a power dynamic.

Recently, I made a conscious effort to alter my automatic reactions to people's power plays when they approached me. The reactions I got were amusing. The demanders were more than a little confused when I finished recording a thought in my notes before responding to them. The supplicants were shocked when I offered to teach them how to do something that they were SURE I'd want to hold on to doing. The ones that thought that they inherited their boss's status were shocked that I wouldn't jump to do their bidding, or confused when I offered to teach them how to do something that they were used to having me do.

In many of these cases, I had changed something in our interaction. I'd given away some of what they thought was my power, or I'd taken some of their assumed power. It's too early to tell, but some of what I'd done has paid off already. Some people are more willing to try to do some more things on their own, because they know that I'm going to sympathize with them if they mess it up (and probably will be able to fix it if they break it further). It's like I handed them a box of screws, when all they'd been trained to use was a hammer. Some of them are still trying to hammer the screws into the wood, but others are starting to look around for a screwdriver, and asking how to use it.

Being aware of the power dynamic between a Dom and a Sub has made me more aware of the same dynamic between myself and other people in my day to day life. Knowing what it feels like to take control in a relationship makes me more aware of when someone else tries to take control from me in a vanilla situation. It's not exactly the same thing - but there are enough similarities that I can get a handle on what's going on. I see how good leaders use power without taking outright control. I see how bad leaders take power without accepting responsibilities. I watch people use the little power they have in their positions to make themselves feel more important, or better about themselves. I watch as people who don't understand the relationships between power and responsibility blame everyone else for their failings, even though the same damned thing keeps happening to them, over and over again.

And when we play, I learn a little bit every time I take control. I learn a little bit, every time I let myself use that power that you give me over you. I learn when to take control, and when to give control. And I use what I've learned to make my little corner of the world a little smoother, a little less confrontational, and a little easier to understand.

Or maybe I'm still trying to hammer the screws into the wood.


posted at 11:10 PM :: Comments (4)
filed under observations

comments on this entry

I've worked in environments such as that, and there is a power exchange going on, because the environment reenforces that kind of behavior. Those that learn the system and learn how to manipulate it (and those within it) tend to do well. I hated that environment, because I was totally uninterested in manipulating the system or the people within, and refused to be manipulated myself. I prefer the service sector where the drive for profit and advancement doesn't hold such pervasive sway. Certainly, manipulators are found everywhere, but when you find one, it's more likely due to their personality rather than due to the environment (that behavior in not nearly so well rewarded), so they are fewer and further between. Power exchange for fun is great, but it's damn nice to be able to get away from it at work.

— posted by: me on March 31, 2005 12:40 AM

I currently work in the public sector, and the politics are still there. Profit isn't an issue, but power still is.

What I've noticed in both sectors is that, by and large, it's the people with less power (and who feel they should have more) who are the ones who try to force me to their bidding by shoving their status down my throat.

I don't think I've worked anywhere where there hasn't been power struggles and power exchanges of one kind or another. It may be people's inbuilt personality, it may be the culture, it may just be frustration at being almost powerless, but it goes on everywhere. It makes for interesting observing, but I usually choose to stay as uninvolved as possible (doesn't stop others using me as a pawn in their own game though).

I'm in IT, doing support work. I basically run the help desk for a small-medium organisation. It suits me down to the ground - I have a real and genuine love of helping people use IT. It means that - unless some-one decides to override my judgement - I get to say when the calls I can't resolve there and then get to be done. So people do try and pull rank. By being unfailingly polite, friendly and sympathetic to everyone, by explaining why their problem can't be dealt with immediately, by ignoring rank, and by basically treating them with respect even if they don't treat me accordingly, I've found I can diffuse a lot of the power games. It's a response they're simply not used to, but they discover soon enough that things get done quicker and with less nastiness this way. Yes, it's manipulative in it's own way, but it makes for a better environment for both sides. How much of this works because I'm a submissive outside of work, and so I don't come across as a threat I don't know - although I do know most people at work don't think I'm a pushover.

Sorry for commenting at such length - just wanted to verify your own observations ;)

— posted by: Am (aka C./Confused) on April 1, 2005 04:44 PM

me: I have to disagree with your observation that fewer manipulators are found in the service sector. I think that power exchange is a natural, instinctual thing that every single human being uses to get things done. But most people are completely unaware of it while they're doing it.

C: I've also noticed that those with the least amount of power tend to be the ones that attempt to use it most, both badly and baldly. Of course, they may have the least power simply BECAUSE they don't understand how to use it properly.

And everyone is a manipulator, to some degree or another. You want to get something done, you have to figure out how to get it done. Sometimes this involves exchange of favours, sometimes it involves pulling rank, and sometimes it involves intimidation to some degree. All these are attempts to manipulate - all are typical behaviours in modern society. If you are aware of the powerplay, then you can deal with it more rationally, and you can predict what's going to happen, rather than being blindsided by it.

Humans are pack animals - we tend to live in groups. In just about every other species on this planet, pack behaviour requires both dominant and submissive behaviours from most members of the pack. I'm coming to the conclusion that humans are not very different - except in the criteria used to determine dominance.

I'm enjoying watching the interplay between different people at my new workplace. I'm new enough that I'm outside the power struggles (mostly) and I can watch the different people and how they interact. It's fascinating for me to watch, in light of my experience with D/S.

— posted by: Neko on April 3, 2005 01:09 PM

Great post as always, Neko.

I'm not sure what comes first: a sensitivity to power relations or an interest in D/s. I read somewhere that people who gets attracted to this type of erotic play are often already very sensitive to power relations in their ordinary lives. In my case, this is true. I have always been accutely aware of more or less subtle relations of power, and I think I am, more or less consciously, in every situation I find myself in.

I think this is why playing with power and control hits deep in me - and why it feels like a second skin, rather than a misfitting garment. I have an already fine tuned power radar.

Maybe it also goes the other way - that your sensitivity increases in everyday life AFTER you've started playing with it sexually? Sounds plausible.

— posted by: Bliatz on April 20, 2005 05:13 PM


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