Information is Power — Beware of Dog

The retrospective play-by-play regarding a recent workplace dispute has engendered some abstract conversation about power dynamics in small groups (offices, churches, etc.).  Worth sharing some thoughts in America’s most favorite little-read blog.

Here’s the short version.  I’m the senior analyst in a workgroup dedicated to information analysis, quality improvement, and systems development.  This group was formed originally around me, as I grew in this role from the early days of being a director’s administrative assistant.  We later expanded to 3.8 FTEs and — on paper — a respectable portfolio of responsibilities for the front-end revenue cycle of my hospital.

But politics is a funny thing.  There are people in my internal customer group whose responsibilities are not in sync with their institutional responsibility.  This is largely because of the effective removal of an entire layer of management from our org chart; my senior director has functioned as a de facto vice president for years, and her managers as directors, and her supervisors as managers.  And so on.  So, we have managers and supervisors whose functional peers are one rung higher on the corporate totem pole, and this has sometimes led to challenges.

Information is power.  Part of the strategery for being effective when you’re misaligned on the org chart is to be 110 percent prepared with clear and convincing data.  Which is where my workgroup and I come in; we have developed a formidable competence in dealing with some of the most complicated data in our hospital, and we are accessed by customers throughout the health system.

Our team is committed to methodological integrity.  Although our internal customers are hardly unethical idiots, they nevertheless express business needs that, from our perspective, need to be carefully addressed — sometimes, very carefully addressed.  And we do our best to meet the needs of all our customers.

Sometimes, though, we get requests for which we have some sort of reservation, sometimes methodological and sometimes political.  We are then put in the position of not giving the requester exactly what he or she has asked for.

Data analysis features a lot of very powerful tools.  We keep those tools tightly locked in a “shed of competence,” and my partner and I keep careful watch over the shed’s door to ensure that the tools are used properly.  When people want to use those tools for purposes for which they weren’t really intended, the person who guards the door occasionally becomes embroiled in a political controversy that often appears to be about something peripheral — tone/quality of communication, compliance, arrogance, whatever — but in truth is about unfettered control of, or access to, the toolshed.  As long as the analysts doing the work have the autonomy to refuse, redirect, or modify requests, they wear a big red target.  And since the analysts aren’t members of management, their ability to deal effectively with pressure from higher up the totem pole is, therefore, circumscribed.

The power dynamic at the center of disagreements over data seems to be fought on externals that are tangents to the real issue.  Instead of clear communication, there can sometimes be a tendency to kick the dogs guarding the shed door, through criticisms about the professionalism or integrity or competence of that guard dog.  In short, ad hominems substitute as the core dispute, when in fact the real question is about the nature and propriety of access to information.

A similar dynamic played out at my church.  Until a few years ago, my parish was under the jurisdiction of the Conventual Order of Friars Minor (the “black” Franciscans).  During the Franciscan era, we had multiple friars in residence and frequent turnover among the clergy, so a lot of day-to-day accountability for managing the parish (at the time, we had more than 1,200 families) resided with lay-run committees and commissions.  In fact, commission chairmen had a wide degree of budget authority and approval over various aspects of parish life.

In 2004, the Franciscans pulled out of their parishes in Michigan and direct jurisdiction over my parish reverted to the diocese.  We were appointed a single priest, who dismantled the entire infrastructure of lay commissions and committees and basically assumed full and direct control over parochial decision-making.  I knew how this worked first-hand, as I was (and remain) the chairman of the parish liturgy commission; I went from a high degree of decision-making authority over parish worship, to being the guy who typed the agenda for Father’s liturgy meeting.  (As an aside, I think the change was a good one — the Franciscan model led to an unhealthy degree of lay clericalism, in my view.)

Life at the parish is different now.  Lay volunteers almost never direct things; rather, they support the paid staff who report to the pastor.  The feel is different, and the flow of information about parish life has substantially changed.

So, the ultimate question:  What general patterns can we discern from power dynamics regarding “data,” in small groups?  A few conclusions from my experiences include:

  • Information is power, and people who control information (either through access or through interpretation) occupy roles that — no matter how technical in construct — are inherently political.
  • People respond differently to people who control information, depending on where that person sits in terms of relative influence.  A person in a superior position is accorded deference, and a person in an inferior position is often considered a threat or an obstacle (or, to be fair, a favored co-worker/subordinate).
  • The best way to advance when you’re in an inferior position (whether formally or functionally) is to have secure access to reliable data.  Anything that jeopardizes this access — even in a non-threatening manner — becomes a serious problem, which gets externalized on the persons who are the “guard dogs” of that data.

None of this should be interpreted as a criticism of my employer, colleagues, or parish; the statements in this post are merely intended to advance a line of thinking about “power” and “data” that too often fail to be addressed in the most appropriate manner, regardless of the setting or context.  Nevertheless, some of what I’ve seen is instructive, and suggests strategies for managing the power/data conflict in a healthier and more appropriate manner, with eyes wide open.

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