Power Bends Light

Power Bends Light

Aug 18, 2019

I truly want to be a big company person, but I am a generalist who gets bored easily, and the reality is that I love startups. It’s true that most things at most startups are perpetually on fire, but if you can accept that, there is a lot to like. One well-known one: at a fast-growing startup, a hard-working, talented person who has some support from company leadership* can often acquire an impressive title (or at least a lot of de facto power) very quickly.

I’ve met a lot of people who have come to power this way with little or no management experience and sometimes not even much experience with the core responsibilities of their role. Everything is new, and having power itself is one more new thing. I first landed in that situation only a few years into my programming career, and I found it so disorienting. I could sometimes feel that, just as mass distorts the fabric of space time, power was reshaping everything around me, but I couldn’t see exactly how. Here are some things I wish I’d known at the time:

  • Power bends taste. One of my favorite things in the world is when someone says something very funny and nobody laughs — maybe because it’s too niche and weird to admit that you got the joke, maybe because you’re on a conference call pretending to be listening and a coworker sent you a funny screenshot, maybe because you’re eavesdropping and trying to act like you’re minding your own business. Whatever the reason, I love watching people try not to laugh. I used to make a lot of jokes that were either so goofy or obscure that people rarely laughed, and I was happy with that. But after I signed my first new hire on the first team I managed, I noticed something — people started laughing at all my jokes. I was flummoxed. I hadn’t gotten funnier. My coworkers hadn’t become less stoic. A few weeks later, it hit me: it was because I had become more powerful. I’m still not sure exactly why that mattered — I guess people cared more than ever about having a good relationship with me, so why not join in on the laughter if the joke was clever and harmless? At first, I was repelled — it seemed like a gross display of obsequiousness — even though I knew none of these people would admit (or probably even believe) they had changed their behavior. I realized later it wasn’t really (or, at least, only) about sucking up. Power defines what’s normal — and suddenly my sense of humor had stumbled one tick toward the mainstream, just close enough to be something we could all laugh about at lunch.

  • Power bends accountability. I’ve often been in departments where two people would perform the same problematic behavior, but only one person would regularly get called out for it. Sometimes it would be something obvious like merging PRs with no reviewer, and sometimes something more subtle like talking down to someone else in a meeting. One person would be confronted on the spot, while someone else might get away without a word. There are always justifications: “well, that person is a senior software engineer,” or, “I didn’t think the behavior was bad enough to pick a fight about it.” But more often than not, I started to notice that the thing most strongly correlated to their treatment was their power on the team.

        Of course, the effect is only as durable as that person’s power is; often, when that person stumbles and loses some perceived power, a mob with pitchforks suddenly appears around them. Invariably they are surprised. I could never explain it — both that they could be unaware of how others felt about their behavior, and that their critics suddenly all picked the same time to bring up their gripes. But power bends accountability. There are multiple factors here: few people want to give a powerful person unpleasant feedback, powerful people sometimes feel invincible and can get away with ignoring more criticism, and, most insidious of all, people sometimes make subtle adjustments to their understanding of cause, effect, and accountability to attribute positive outcomes to powerful people, and negative outcomes to less-powerful ones. Compare how we seem to be willing to give so many fresh chances to wealthy and powerful people who stumble due to their own bad choices, but we love to hate on poor people for their problems despite all the obvious structural factors working against them. The same thing happens in companies.

  • Power bends meaning. One of the greatest disorientations of newly acquired power is that it can change the meaning of everything you do and say. Where once you didn’t reply to the occasional Slack message because you were scatterbrained and busy, now it’s because you think you’re too important to be bothered.** Your behavior hasn’t changed at all, but all of a sudden people think you have a new personality. One example: a colleague was once promoted from being a member of a particular group to being its leader. A few weeks after the switch, I asked her to stop replying with “+1” to Slack messages in the group. In the past, this behavior had been a benign way to help the group build consensus. Now it had become a way to stifle debate and create new hierarchies within the group. She didn’t need to help build consensus anymore; as the leader of the group, her stated opinion was nearly enough to be consensus. Tossing a +1 after someone else’s opinion went from putting a thumb on the scale to standing on the scale, even though we were all typing the exact same things we had been a week before.

Once I started watching for how newly-acquired power distorts the meanings of everything, I started seeing examples everywhere: it sometimes felt like my startup surroundings had the wavy hallucinatory quality of a mirage in the desert. To help organize my thoughts, I started abbreviating this phenomenon with a phrase: power bends light.

I thought I would need it mostly to deal fairly with the leaders on my team, and it helps there sometimes, but again and again, the person I continue to need it most for is myself. You often gain power from doing a good job, but power also makes you feel like you are doing a good job — and it makes people around you less likely to tell you differently. When people tell me everything is great even though their faces say something else, when I apologize for something and they insist it was no big deal, when I suddenly get a raised eyebrow for doing something I’ve done 100 times before, I try to remember to ask myself, what’s my relationship to this person? Do I have power over them somehow? Is power bending light?

* Unfortunately, this often means someone who is demographically quite a lot like the founders/leadership or is a white man. However, in my experience, sometimes startups that are particular tire fires — or have departments that are — will extend the privilege to others (sometimes after they burn through a good supply of people who meet the earlier set of demographic characteristics). This was roughly how I ended up the Lead Engineer in charge of the web shopping experience on a site with $100 million in annual revenue when I had three years of programming experience. There’s probably a whole other post to write sometime about how to find these kinds of opportunities and how to decide whether to take them when they are suspiciously glass-cliff-shaped, but I will save it for another day.

** These interpretations are often gendered (and further shaped along other axes like race/ethnicity and age) in a predictably irritating way. As the indispensable What Works for Women at Work puts it, as a woman you’re often “either a bitch or a doormat.” Sigh. I have no great advice besides encouraging everyone to read that wonderful book for solace (and/or education, depending on where you’re coming from) and some useful suggestions.

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