This article is part of a series of learning resources developed by Accelerate and
Intend Health Strategies to establish a shared language and focus on Relational Leadership practices for U of U Health leaders and teams. Read the first article here: "Not Sure How to Build Relational Culture at Work? Start with Signaling."
The work of Intend Health Strategies is grounded in Relational Leadership (RL), a human-centric approach that cultivates authentic human connection and awareness to increase belonging, collaboration, equity, and impact across health systems—the foundation for better care and the catalyst for meaningful and sustainable change.
Think about the word “power” — how does it make you feel?
eople have different connotations of power and those connotations can bring up a lot of emotions. For instance, if you think of power as authoritarian, you may feel afraid of those in power. Within each of our relationships at home and at work, power can have a different meaning and different context.
Within the workplace, we can create more positive connotations of power by developing a relational culture. A relational culture is a space that allows for:
- Growth through learning, innovation and the ability to think outside the box
- Authenticity through transparency and trust
- Integration through collaboration
- Belonging by helping people feel seen, heard and valued
A relational culture allows everyone to feel as if they can join the conversation—it helps foster a sense of psychological safety. In his book, "The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety," the social scientist Timothy Clark explains four stages teams can move through to cultivate psychological safety, including:
- Learner safety that helps people admit mistakes or ask for help
- Challenger safety that allows people to callout uncomfortable truths or express concerns
- Contributor safety that encourages people to participate and make a difference
- Inclusion safety that makes people feel as if they belong and matter
Understanding power dynamics — positive vs. negative
It is not possible to achieve these different kinds of safety without understanding and addressing the underlying power dynamics within our work culture. You can begin to address power dynamics by addressing and defining the word power itself.
Let’s start with positive power dynamics, such as:
- Self-determination or the ability to make our own choices
- Influence or the ability to persuade or guide others
- Visibility or the feeling of being seen, heard and valued
These definitions of power are positive. We all want to be seen, heard and in control of our own lives.
At the same time, most people don’t have positive feelings about power. That’s often because people have experienced:
- Unequal distribution of power
- Abuse of power that has harmed them
- Power that feels like it was taken from someone else
- Power that feels like it will never change
As we create a relational culture, we must overcome these challenges of power by truly understanding where power comes from.
Why power matters — harnessing our collective strengths
Kate Stitham, education consultant for Intend Health Strategies and organizational and leadership development expert, lays out a framework for illustrating where power is derived from:
- Positional power related to a title as manager, supervisor, etc.
- Cultural and systemic power related to how our identity aligns or doesn’t align with the dominant culture
- Experiential power related to your own skills, knowledge and expertise
- Relational power related to the people we know and people who trust us
- Collective power that comes from people with a similar background or experience banding together
Any of these types of power can be used for help or harm. They can be used as power over someone else—to coerce someone into doing what we want. Or they can be used as distributed power, which is shared power that helps others participate and contribute. Whenever we as individuals experience power, we need to think about how we are using it.
How leaders can empower teams
Formal leaders with positional power can use these three factors—autonomy, relatedness, and competence (ARC)—to empower teams in the workplace. Drawn from the social psychology theory of self-determination, we need these three things to feel motivated at work:
- Autonomy: a sense of ownership over our life, actions, and how we work
- Relatedness: a sense of belonging and connectedness with others
- Competence: a sense of achievement through learning and mastery
Autonomy – engage in shared decision-making
Within our workplaces, we can use our power to help everyone feel involved in decision-making. But it takes work to share power with others.
Start by building the basic elements of social safety by defining clear roles and responsibilities. Help your team members feel that they are trusted. Let them know what is expected of them and how they will be held accountable if they fail to meet those expectations. We often think of this in terms of establishing clear roles and responsibilities. Simply understanding how we fit into the team and our greater workplace creates a safe space. We feel more comfortable having a say in how the workplace operates.
Follow an established process. On D60, a unit-based nurse practice council was created to address problems bedside up. Bedside staff was supported to resolve issues in a way that supported their needs. It is crucial to build trust and psychological safety, support staff in implementing change, and celebrate the change.
Harness the team’s collective strengths. There are other ways that leaders can give employees a chance to build experiential power. For instance, when leaders identify an issue, they can enlist the team to decide how to fix it. The team needs the chance to fix it on their own to build power and knowledge. When leaders micromanage or decide unilaterally how to fix the issue, they fail to truly collaborate with their teams.
Relatedness – trust your team (even if it feels scary)
“This might not work and that’s okay.” Whatever solution a team develops, leaders build trust by allowing the team to implement that solution—even if it might fail. It is essential to keep safety in mind when exploring options that are out-of-the-box ideas and might not be promising. Failure is not negative; failure is a chance to learn and build power. But allowing teams to take on this level of power and responsibility can feel uncomfortable and scary for both leaders and employees.
One way to feel more comfortable with power sharing is to set guidelines for when leaders get involved. In health care, patient and team safety takes precedence. Making it clear that in an emergency or in the event of possible harm, the leader takes decisive action. Having these guard rails can help everyone feel more confident.
When collaboration isn’t possible, leaders reflect respect for their teams by being transparent about why that decision was made—building relational power.
Competence – embrace the power of small wins
You can also build team confidence by assigning small, low-risk tasks or projects, like scheduling a meeting and booking a conference room. As a team gains more experience and feels more comfortable with power and responsibility, they can take on greater risk projects.
Our work force has changed and for most of our team members, this is the first job that is structured and helping them learn how to navigate their way to be impactful. Working through assignments empowers them to navigate their way and learn what it takes to making things happen. As employees fail at small things, they’ll begin to feel safe. They’ll begin to feel they can contribute, disagree and learn. Most importantly, they’ll begin to feel they have power over their workplace and a chance to make a difference.