Profile: Jane Watson

A series profiling those who influence my thinking

This is the first in a new feature I’m starting on Work Futures, profiles of those who have influenced my thinking.

Today: Jane Watson (@janewatsonHR), based in Toronto. Her Twitter bio:

Founder @ApertaProject rethinking sexual harassment; Masters candidate @hsi_concordia; Sr Dir, People Partners @klickhealth; writer @TalentVanguard; She/Her

Here are several excerpts of her writing that I have bookmarked and reread.

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In On Power & Transparency, Jane Watson discusses power, and shares a useful model for thinking about power in the workplace:

Elizabeth [Hunt] shared a power framework with us, but cautioned that it was just a lens to look through, not a definitive set of categories. The framework describes four different ways power manifests in decision-making:

  1. Power Over (directive, unilateral decisions, control of resources; boss/employee)

  2. Power For (advocating, decisions on behalf, managing resources)

  3. Power With (collaborating/cooperating, shared decisions, negotiating resources)

  4. Power Among (infinite, expansive, responsive decision-making, generates resources)

Power Among is a concept developed by Tuesday Ryan-Hart. Elizabeth shared that it differs from the other quadrants in that it does not rest on a transactional view of power (e.g. it’s not zero sum, where a finite amount of power must be divided between two or more people). Instead, its use generates more power, perhaps without limit.

Power Among is a sort of emergent power arising from the interaction of individuals, a non-zero-sum acceleration and amplification of power through network effects. I love it.

Jane continues:

A key point from Elizabeth was that power is relational and exercised. That is, power exists between people and manifests when it is used. Having influence describes the power one has in relation to others. One can’t have influence alone on a desert island. Likewise, having resources (like money or information) that you never use and that others aren’t aware of (like money hidden under a mattress) doesn’t confer power until it is exercised (by using it, or making others aware of your potential to use it).

So we can say we want to share power, but power isn’t truly distributed until others can actually exercise it.

She also described the idea that those with power may want to share power (moving to a power with or power among relationship) but if they haven’t examined their own power and thoroughly investigated their personal (potentially subconscious) need to maintain control, they will likely slip back into Power Over, particularly if aspects of the organization (like communication and decision making) have consciously or unconsciously been structured with that underlying orientation in mind.

Her point? That any real and sustainable shift of power first requires mapping where power currently resides, and owning (not denying) that power, before it can be distributed.

This reaffirms the need for all of us, but especially leaders, to become more power-literate and conversant.

A Year of Not Knowing | Jane Watson hasn’t been writing much (our loss), due to what she calls a ‘crisis of unknowing’. However, she’s been reading and offers this:

This week I finished The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws and the Forerunners of Corporate Change by Art Kleiner, a wonderfully weird history of corporate management and the counter-cultural schools of thought that challenged prevailing organizational wisdom, and either changed it or were co-opted by it, on the path from medieval monasteries to the end of the 1980s.

I loved every page of this book and I would give almost anything to read a second volume that brings the history to present day (sadly Kleiner never wrote one).

What was both satisfying and unsettling was to see how far back the roots of (seemingly) current questions and contemporary issues in organizations go. Self-management, corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion, environmentalism, rampant consumerism and the role of corporations in society, it’s all in there, decades before I imagined it would be.

Writing in 1996 about the 1960s Kleiner says:

“As a nation, we were prepared for the collapse of capitalism or its hegemony—but not for the kind of rolling, choppy, uncertain economic growth that struck different components of society in turn with prosperity and calamity, so that no component could ever remain secure.

"We were prepared for a battle over the direction of government, but not for an intensely pluralistic society, in which government was no longer the primary engine of governance, having ceded that role to corporations and interest groups.

"We were prepared for race war, but not global interconnectedness, where economies were held in thrall to the imperatives of bond and currency markets.

"We were prepared for giant corporations to become public enemies, but not for them to adopt an ambiguous role as public enemy and social contributor.“

“Most of all, we were not prepared for the speed of transactions to accelerate once again.”

Should I be comforted to know how many of our present-day concerns and challenges are ones that have long been manifested by the processes at work across our economy and organizations? Maybe.

Thank you, dear Jane, for motoring through your ambivalence.

Jane Watson writes about The Art of Decision-Making by Joshua Rothman:

Rotham points out that as humans, individual transformation often takes time. And that we frequently have to aspire towards being someone else that we do not yet fully understand, because we haven’t experienced that existence yet. This often requires that we relinquish the value we place on our current identity, and inhabiting a weird ‘in between’ place. I’m fascinated by this concept. I’ve always thought of these periods as ‘squiggly line’ times, and think they’re scary but very powerful.

She quotes Rothman who cites Callard:

The trouble is that some values preclude others. An aspiring artist must reject the corporate virtues to which he once aspired and embrace creative ones in their place. If a family illness forces him to abandon his artistic plans, he may end up adrift—disenchanted with corporate life, but unable to grasp the real satisfactions of an artistic existence. To aspire, Callard writes, is to judge one’s present-day self by the standards of a future self who doesn’t yet exist. But that can leave us like a spider plant putting down roots in the air, hoping for soil that may never arrive.

I suggested liminality:

from Wikipedia: In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rites, when participants no longer hold their preritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold”[3] between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes.

I pointed her to Dave Gray’s Liminal Thinking.


Jane on Edgar Schein and his views on organizational climate:

Organizational Climate

Despite its second billing to culture (it can’t lay claim to an overused apocryphal quote about its fearsome ability to eat things for breakfast), organizational climate is more often what we’re really talking about when we say culture.

While many confuse culture and climate, they are generally regarded as having meaningful differences with practical implications.

Edgar Schein describes organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learns as it solves major problems of external adaptation and internal integration.”

Climate is considered to be the attitudes and feelings that individuals have about how their immediate or local team is managed, and how they work together.

Schein again: “A climate can be locally created by what leaders do, what circumstances apply, and what environments afford. A culture can evolve only out of mutual experience and shared learning.”

It should be also apparent that the climate can often change pretty quickly. The climate is often based on events, people’s reactions and incidents between people. The culture is less dependent on individual events, but tends to drive people’s interpretation, thinking, and perspectives of events that occur.”

So, organizational climates are impermanent, more superficial and changeable, and more local than culture. While subcultures in organizations absolutely exist, we can almost certainly expect that microclimates are even more common, given the influence that varied managerial practices and recent interactions and events have on the climate within teams. We’re talking about shared experience of ‘surface conditions’, which of course vary between groups and teams in our organizations.

This seems obvious, and yet we forget it. In part, that’s because we often assume that there should be a consistent culture throughout our organization, that can be measured reliably at a particular moment as though it were static and monolithic. Most popular writing about culture suggests, if not explicitly states, that is the case. It’s easy to let this assumption carry over to our thoughts, if we have any, about climate too.

But what’s also true is that we can’t avoid being in our own way when we try to intuit what the climate in our organization is. Just as we cannot avoid bringing our own preconceptions and cultural baggage to the assessment of an organization’s culture, we cannot help but assume that there is some degree of universality for our own experience of the climate of our organization.

Think about how the employee in an unhappy team assumes that everyone across the company is unhappy. They see a message go out about Janice’s last day and point to it as a sign that everyone’s jumping ship: “See? They’re losing their best people, and they don’t care.”

If we march out into our organizations unprepared for this variation in climate, we are likely to be in for a shock about how we’re received, about how communications and programs are perceived, and the value of org-wide solutions.

Awareness of these microclimates, not as problems to be solved, but as natural features of a complex system, is a way to see our organizations more clearly as they are. The assumption, or insistence, that your organization is a certain way will not make it so, any more than shouting at the clouds will make it sunny.

So don’t forget your jacket…and your sunscreen.

Thanks, Jane.