How we Help, How we Harm: Deepening our Understanding of Culture Power Privilege and Rank

Individuals can experience power, privilege and rank as a result of the status they have earned through their own endeavors in life such as professional or academic achievement. These markers of status may be relatively obvious and more easily anticipated and worked with. However, power, privilege and rank that come from the social groups that one identifies with or belongs to, can be more subtle and difficult to name and engage. These forms of social power, privilege and rank are not earned; they are something people are born into.

Every social group has its own set of norms, standards, beliefs and values, all of which help to comprise its unique culture. Members of each group have a deep unconscious understanding of how to behave and fit in. They know which behaviors are valued and which are not. They know the rules of engagement.

Members of a dominant social group are afforded power, privilege and rank and typically experience a general sense of comfort since they are in settings that align with their norms, standards, beliefs and values. The ease they feel contributes to an inner confidence and a belief that everyone thinks and feels like them. They can carry a subtle sense of entitlement to speak and do as they please.

On the other hand, people who are not members of a particular dominant group often feel marginalized. They do not feel they belong nor experience the same inner confidence. Their behavior is tentative and they may not speak up when they are in disagreement. Members of dominant social groups tend to speak with authority as if their worldviews are “the truth.”

When individuals behave with little awareness of the power, privilege and rank associated with their social groups, their attitudes and behaviors may demean, dismiss or ignore others. This harm is sometimes referred to as causing micro-aggressions. In a coaching context, the effect on communication between a coach from a dominant group and a client from a marginalized group could be distorted by these power, privilege and rank differences. The effect on the process of coaching is likely to be harmful rather than helpful if the coach is unaware of the power, privilege and rank afforded them by their membership in various dominant social groups. It is the cultural experience of belonging to dominant social groups and the cultural experience of belonging to marginalized social groups that we wish to lift up here.

In the following table, social groups appear in no order of importance, nor is it an exhaustive list. It is rather an invitation to coaches and clients alike to reflect on how different categories of power, privilege and rank might show up. We encourage you to think about additional categories that you are aware of and/or have direct experience with and how their dynamics may impact your coaching.

Keep in mind that a social group’s dominance is often context-dependent. For instance, white men may not necessarily carry power, privilege and rank in all circumstances. A white male who is a minority in terms of numbers in a multi-racial workplace may feel socially marginalized if he feels unable to engage in effective communication with his peers; however, he may also be perceived, even subconsciously, by the decision-makers, as more promotion-worthy.

How we connect with various social groups can be extremely complex. All of us likely identify with multiple dominant social groups and with multiple marginalized groups. The same applies to our clients. How aware we are of the cultures of dominant groups and the cultures of marginalized groups, and how we hold this complexity and intersectionality (living in multiple worlds) in our sessions and within ourselves, takes on tremendous importance.

Written by Johnny Manzon-Santos (USA), Jonelle Naude (South Africa), Mike Scott (South Africa), Marilyn O’Hearne (USA), Kim Fowler (USA)

Excerpt from Coaching for Transformation by Lasley, Kellogg, Michaels and Brown.

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