Thinking about Power

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Power is a relationship, not a thing.

What do you think of when you hear the term Power? Do you recoil at the thought of power politics? Or do you relish using power, of playing "king of the hill"? The difference may be how you think about power. Learning what power is, and is not, will help you achieve your aims in life. Managing power requires making difficult choices of goals and action: politics. Here we assume that power is neutral, neither right or wrong, good or bad. Power in politics is not abstract; it is a feature of time, place, and others, and it depends on the purposes and goals it serves. It is “means,” never an “end in itself.”

Everyone has power. If you breathe, you have power. Your goal: stay alive. So Power is desirable, because without it, we cannot manage and we lose freedom to act. Through power we combine purpose and ability to effect change or maintain stability. Here we discuss how to think about power in ways that help you succeed. Most importantly, we want you to think positively about your own power and not be afraid to use it.

Everyone needs power and everyone is happier when they have power because power is the ability to choose and the means to achieve. Think of the power that a new born infant has over the lives of its parents. A baby's power comes from goals shared with parents: to survive and thrive. A baby's power comes from its ability to communicate when hungry, cold, or wet and likewise to reward parents with coos and smiles when satisfied.

Thinking about power gets clouded by three common errors. First, we limit it to coercion. Second, we treat it as an end in itself, which is a logical impossibility. Third, we commodify it as something tangible and bankable, rather permanent like cash.

Power is more than force.

Many consider power to be the physical or economic might to compel others to do their will. This concept of power as coercion leans toward all-or-nothing actions—avoidable inefficiencies in the name of effectiveness. Power is much more than force. Most of the time, our goals are not in direct opposition to those of others. Most of the time our goals complement, overlap, or coincide with others, like those of the baby and parent. Most of the time, an outcome can be positive for all involved, especially if we look for such overlaps and agree to adjust priorities. In a project or office setting, force implies the ability to intimidate or to sack someone. Threats to fire someone or threats to quit are almost always counter-productive. Without any threat of coercion, powerful leadership can galvanize a group to achieve a common goal that would never have been possible to achieve through force. This is the difference between a free society where workers contribute willingly vs. a dictatorship where work is coerced through fear of reprisal. Influence – honey – yields more than commands do.

Power is both more and less than a job title.

Thinking power derives only from social position or title limits and distorts its use. Authority illegitimately used yields weakness. Thinking power comes from our title makes it seem like a magic wand. So when using that wand fails, it leads us to look for a scapegoat or saboteur to blame. Assuming a title makes us powerful can lead us to ignore the setting where we deploy our power. No title or social position gives us cost-free liberty to make someone act against their will. Even in a military situation, rules allow for conscientious objectors and permit or even require the enlisted to disobey an illegal order.

Power lies primarily in our ability to motivate others. Our title gives us the opportunity to address staff, but the power to achieve success depends on how we use that opportunity, our obedience to norms and expectations of those over whom we hold authority. Power derives from our ability to motivate others. Pulling "rank" is costly, and although a coercive act may succeed for the moment, the risk is high that subsequent costs will erase any benefit. When a relationship is thus severely strained, the manager, the employee, and the organization all “pay” in reduced productivity and reliability. Payments take the form of stress, passive aggressive moves, and eventually by causing staff to leave, costing experience and retraining. If a manager luxuriates in her image of being powerful, if she declines to define carefully the reasons she expends power, if she belittles a member of her staff, she will one day discover her power vessel to be empty, useful in the inverse of its presumed volume. Power, like a living thing, must be nurtured.

Power is not a bankable commodity.

If power could be reliably quantified, we could rank ourselves and others by power. Though Forbes can publish a rank-ordered list of the most powerful people in the world, that ranking is bound by time, assumptions about certain human qualities, and other criteria extracted from a larger reality. If power were to social impact what money is to purchasing, we could get past the barter stage in politics. As it is, power is useful only in bargaining, negotiating, motivating, or forcing to achieve a goal or objective.

We pursue varied and varying goals in different arenas of action -- economy, ecology, military, diplomacy, and communication for example. These issue arenas and our goals change over time and we can increase or decrease our list of wants at any moment and, thus, since power is only means, we can sometimes change our power instantly – by changing our goals. Such activities overflow with ambiguity. The “barter” character of politics always tempts some to try to use their status to purchase the ends they desire. The plentitude of corruption charges at all levels and in all societies testify to this unfortunate proclivity. A commodity view of power also may lead us to expect that the person at the top is able to guarantee that everyone below receives a fair share and is safe. Though we can measure some components of power such as budgets, number of staff, or tangibles such as desks and offices, the ambiguity of needs of vitality, order, and justice alter the weight of the tangibles and require that we grasp a deeper understanding of the nature of power to be successful in using it. We need to escape either the belief or wish that power be a medium of exchange like money.