Power, Privilege and Oppression: An Effective Lens for Executive Coaching

Gail Greenstein's picture Submitted by Gail Greenstein February 13, 2018 - 11:14am
Power, Privilege and Oppression: An Effective Lens for Executive Coaching
Power, Privilege and Oppression: An Effective Lens for Executive Coaching

The opinions expressed by me during this article are my own and do not represent the positions of my employer, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation.

As a coach for over 20 years, I have come to learn how to take an approach to coaching that identifies and uses social location as a critical tool for change. It is an intersectionality framework, influenced by the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American feminist legal scholar, civil rights advocate and leading academic on critical race theory.

Crenshaw developed the framework of intersectionality in 1989 to explore how race, class, gender and other socio-political identities are interwoven, rather than existing as separate, isolated influences on people and their agency in the world. Essentially, we are limited in our thinking and offering tools for change if we analyze and create solutions wrapped up in the advantages or disadvantages of one identity or another.

Using an intersectionality approach means that I have learned not to avoid the fact that I and the clients I work with have multiple identities, coexisting and influenced by their social location within rigid hierarchies of power and privilege in the culture in which we live. And I have learned to pay attention to and utilize how social location and oppression work to suppress and/or propel people in their trajectory of professional development.

Developing an intersectionality lens has been a long journey. When I first started coaching, I assumed I could work similarly with every client regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or other identities, or I got snagged in thinking one was more influential than another. I also did not think critically about the influence of my own identity on the coaching process as a white, heterosexual, Jewish woman.  

My view and action began to change when I started participating in diverse, liberation-based social justice collectives. There, I was challenged about unknowingly misusing my power with a woman of color, to my benefit. I initially resisted the feedback about her experience because there were ways I felt oppressed as a Jewish woman. But then I learned through reading, and white privilege training, how I benefited in a world historically and systematically designed to give white people overwhelming advantages. I learned to challenge my thinking around relationship building and how to act more responsibly—not only for myself but for the benefit of those who are different from me.

Concepts of power, privilege, oppression and intersectionality have been discussed more frequently in the public, especially since the 2016 election, but it is not easy to develop and apply this lens in corporations. Many diversity and inclusion initiatives unknowingly promote inclusion without the tools to integrate and support people responsibly. Thinking styles, MBTI, race, and gender are all seen as elements to consider, but most often separately, and with an emphasis on valuing differences. While these influences are real, and feelings, thoughts, and leadership styles matter, the expanded framework of intersectionality helps us move beyond practices that remove people from their full, cultural context.

Consider this real situation I encountered in executive coaching at a financial institution. An African American male executive was uncomfortable navigating office relationships and was feeling like an outsider at work events. He was assigned a white, Euro-American coach who was not aware of the experience of people of color in the corporate workplace. Her coaching strategy was to help the client construct a development plan to support him to attend more work events and feel comfortable in these social settings. The questions and challenges the coach offered misused power by dismissing the cultural context of the client as well her own. This development plan took the executive further down the same path of disappointment, as the coach gave no acknowledgement of the structural barriers that exist. She focused more on developing his strength and endurance and the racial issue remained hidden in their coaching process.  

An intersectionality approach plays out differently. I worked with an openly gay South Asian female marketing executive at an apparel corporation. She described one of the struggles in her career. Upper management had convened a group of young executives (including my client) to discuss their future career aspirations as well as the requirement of mobility. I was well into our transition coaching engagement, so a large amount of trust had already been built. She shared how her family was different than the other families being referenced in that group meeting. Rather than make the conversation about personal limitations and endurance, I acknowledged how the corporation’s policies advantaged heterosexual couples. I commented on the hetero-normative relocation policies to which my client said, “exactly,” and she went on to discuss what she and her partner wanted to do long-term and, ultimately, how stressful and disheartening it was for her challenges to be made invisible in that setting. Being able to speak the unspoken and point out institutional hurdles, as well as resources and privileges the client could tap into, allowed us to develop a more authentic and empowering plan.

When Executive Coaches understand their social location (how they live in and navigate hierarchies of power, privilege and oppression, as well as those of their clients) they are better equipped to conduct themselves in an ethical manner and not replicate the micro-aggressions and oppressions that their clients experience in the world. This view is supported by research in other fields of practice. According to Rhea Almeida (2013), PhD, founder of the Institute for Family Services, “Power is always exercised in one way or another. It is easy to intentionally or unintentionally misuse it and therefore harm others at the individual, group or institutional level.” Additionally, coaches with this lens are more qualified to work with clients to integrate solutions that include accessing privilege, power and other resources effectively and responsibly.

Deepening an understanding of intersectionality is a journey and requires an ongoing commitment to learning. Working against this development is the reality that most coaches are trained to use cultural competence and/or diversity and inclusion frameworks, and the work is stuck there.

There are, indeed, ways to expand our understanding and practice to include intersectionality. First and foremost, consider your current clients in their culture context, including their and your access to power and privilege and their and your experiences of oppression. Be open to exploring what shifts you can make in your current process, or what new coaching approaches you might employ to better connect with your clients and their objectives.

I offer these resources for consideration:

Rhea Almeida, Transformative Family Therapy, Just Families in a Just Society

Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality

Tim Wise, White Like Me