woman_staring_out_windowWoman staring out the window, by Rhoda Baer (photographer) for the US NIH, Public Domain

The Surviving Work in the UK series is produced by Surviving Work.
There are three of them and one of me. They sit across the table, watching me intently, weighing up my best-attempt responses to their relentless line of questioning. Judge, jury and executioner – and me, interview candidate for the umpteenth time in as many months, honest witness of relevant experience and earnest defendant of transferable skills.

We all have stories to tell about job interview disasters and even the odd triumph. Some of us have even sat behind that table, shuffling papers and scribbling notes, listening and considering, and then forming conclusions out of stray details. Interviews are crazy, when you stop and think about it. An hour or two of nervous chat based on prescriptive questions and superficial judgements, leading ostensibly to long-term relationships with people you’ve not even yet met.

No interview can really predict how an individual will perform in post, how relationships will unfold. Every employee comes with his or her own motives and needs, limitations and issues, his or her own personal style and character flaws. Interviews are at best a broad hint and at worst a blind luck of the draw. No matter how neatly we may jump the professional hurdles during interview, we all must then roll up our sleeves and delve into what Lionel Stapley calls ‘the politics of identity.’ He writes that

… every relationship between two individuals is a constant psychological negotiation in which each is trying to impose on the other his picture of the other and correspondingly also to ensure that the other’s picture of him fits, or is the same as, his picture of himself. That is the politics of identity. 

The politics of identity involve the leveraging of power based upon any number of personal, qualitative factors – and here is where we run up against the invisible walls and ceilings that obstruct people from minority groups – those groups with protected characteristics as defined by the Equalities Act 2010, such as gender, disability, ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example.

A recent study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) graduates are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed and will earn 23 per cent less than white graduates.

This tells a story of insiders and outsiders – those with power and those without.

In her 1996 book Power and Sex, Nobel-Prize-nominated peace activist Scilla Elworthy speculates that we are entering a third stage of human history, one which brings into balance the masculine and feminine principles of power – what she terms domination power and hara power. Of domination power, she writes: “… it is easy to see that what power means to most people is force, strength, influence, domination, authority, rule – and ultimately military force… [which have] as much to do with manipulation and control as with physical force.

She then contrasts this with her term hara power, hara being “the point of perfect balance in the body.” (Elworthy 1996, p. 79) She goes on: “Hara power is receptive. It resides within. It lies in the interior – the spirit, the psyche, the body. The healthier all these are, the stronger the power. Hara power is neither specifically male nor female but is a synthesis of the two, and is available equally to men and women.” (Elworthy 1996, p. 80)

This opens up an intriguing suggestion: locating power within oneself, rather than outside of oneself as granted by social structures. Much of mainstream social activism focuses its efforts on reclaiming external, social and political power from those who possess it. While this is unquestionably valuable, it will only take us so far; it is not the full story of what is needed to achieve true equality among all people.

We all – men, women, people of all races – suffer under the warped dynamics of domination power. Domination power reinforces shallow and even demeaning versions of personhood, leaving everyone to define themselves within narrow cultural parameters and expectations. Our current economic arrangements, including the structures and standard practices of paid employment, are the products of domination power. Organisations and hierarchies impose themselves upon individuals who must conform to requirements in order to be hired and thereby earn a living.

What if we turned this tradition on its head and approached all work as the opportunity to practice hara power, rather than as the necessity to submit to domination power? It requires a subtle internal shift, but leads to a vastly different outcome. When our attention rests on the inner space, and meets all others as equals – that is, equal beings likewise navigating this unexpected journey called life – we bring a fresh perspective to the politics of identity. We become focused on the unleashing of healthy hara power within all individuals, rather than the shifting of unhealthy domination power from one group to another.

So let me briefly bring you back to where we started, with me sitting in the interview seat, facing my potential employers. The last time I succeeded in a job interview, I had watched my words and held my tongue. I had pretended for them that I was the person they wanted me to be, tossing out sector-specific jargon, exaggerating my enthusiasm. I was rewarded for this with five miserable years in a dysfunctional, demotivating and fear-filled workplace. The politics of identity brought out the worst in that particular group of people, within the culture of that particular organisation. Never again, I promised myself five years and one nervous breakdown later. Never again will I play the career game at my own expense. Never again will I deny my inner truth for the sake of a payslip and a few more lines on my CV.

Instead I decided to confront what Adam Bucko calls “the reality of living a divided life, such as complete withdrawal or a separate career divided from one’s soul and its deepest aspirations.” These dualities no longer apply if enough of us choose to follow our inner truth. In this new dynamic, the job interview could become an honest conversation, rather than a series of hoops to jump. Work could serve people, rather than people serving work. We could bring our insides to the outside, and allow the outsider to become an insider.



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julia-macintoshJulia Macintosh lives and works in Edinburgh. With a varied career in the voluntary sector, she is currently transitioning into the field of transpersonal psychology. Julia has recently set up the Pandora Project (www.pandora-project.com), which explores the intersection of mental health, spirituality and experiences of personal crisis. She also blogs at www.juliamacintosh.uk.