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Power in Knowledge

Existing in the world is a famous instructional cartoon series that discusses how a bill becomes a law, what adverbs are, and how conjunctions connect parts of speech. In the intro, they posit that "knowledge is power."


The more we know, the more we understand, the more power we have to interpret the world in which we live. That is the positive side. There is a downside. That is when knowledge or information is held as a power play. A person in an organization may choose to not share information because if the information is important to the organization and only one person has it, that person, in their mind, is now both indispensable and has leverage.


This doesn't mean that all withholding of information is a power move. It is frequently necessary. For years, I have been uncomfortable with the very notion of "transparency." The struggle I have with this is that the very concept of "transparency" doesn't have built in boundaries. If a person had a completely transparent tank made of durable plastic and filled it with pure water, looking from one side of the tank, through it, to the other side would not provide a crystal clear of whatever is on the other side of the tank.


However, it is my opinion that when people say "transparent" they are more likely to imagine a single window or one strip of transparent tape. This imagery is accurate, but implies transparency into everything all the time.


When do we withhold information? When it's a matter of legal compliance or proprietary information, primarily. Does Francis get to know why Alex will no longer be working in the company? Generally, no. Does Parent get to see their 28-year-old student's college records just because they're curious? Again, generally, no. In both of these cases the people directly affected get information, but not those without a need to know.


So, not transparent. At least not without a framework.


For the power angle, people might have information or access to it and not share it as a matter of amassing influence. If there's no way around this, then the individual does hold power. And it seems there's always a way around this, even if a painful one.


This could be seen as insubordination, abuse of power, or even a matter of a compliance violation. Then there is power to affect change. Without someone withholding information, they may have the only set of keys to the castle in the form of a complex analysis that only they do or report they produce that looks fully magical.


Some ways to manage this include work arounds, power flexes, and engagement.


  1. Work around: finding another way to get the information. In larger organizations, there are typically longer routes to get to the same data. For smaller organizations, this can be more difficult

  2. Power flex: a supervisor can request the information be shared as a function of the job and it can become a performance issue. Additionally, the individual does own the information and thus does not own access to it outside of articulated work expectations.

  3. Engagement: conversations with the individual may identify why they hold the information. It may not be a power move. It may be that one time the Info Holder shared it, someone used it inappropriately and the Info Holder was held accountable. It may be that controlling how the data is shared provides necessary context only the Info Holder believes they have because they work with the information so closely. Or, maybe they're scared if others have access to the info, the Info Holder will be seen as obsolete and terminated

The reasons and rationale for withholding information can be deep and varied. The best course of action is to understand why information is not shared and address it as needed. Compliance? Proceed with sharing that as a matter of compliance, this information will be shared only in this prescribed way. Power? What do you have to gain by retaining this information?


There is always a path forward, but failure to appreciate how much power can come with having information will consistently create conflicts out of misunderstandings.




Source: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_56.htm

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