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Tuesday, March 29, 2005
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 :: permalink :: Comments (4)
filed under observations

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