Power is the ability to influence other people’s behavior. But where does this ability come from? T
he global COVID-19 pandemic has shifted power dynamics not only within today’s historically tight job market, where workers have an unprecedented level of choice and control, but also within households, organizations, and society as a whole.
Nevertheless, many people still don’t understand how they can gain power or how to use the power they have.
Through her research on power dynamics and change agents, Julie Battilana, the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, seeks to democratize and demystify power. In their new book, Power, for All, Battilana and co-author Tiziana Casciaro, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, outline the fundamentals of power and the underlying dynamics that enable people to acquire and deploy it in a variety of circumstances.
Battilana answered questions from participants in a recent installment of “Office Hours,” an Instagram series (@HarvardHBS) in which Working Knowledge makes experts available to Instagram users to ask questions about their research.
Here’s a transcript of the questions posed by Instagram users and Battilana’s answers:What’s the biggest myth people tend to believe about power dynamics?
In my research, I have found strikingly common misconceptions in how people think about power. The first myth is that power is a thing someone possesses, but it is not. Instead, power is always relative. You may have great influence in one relationship and be completely dependent in another. Second, people confuse power with authority, but authority is no guarantee of power, and you do not need to be high in the hierarchy to have power. The third fallacy that’s probably the most widespread is that power is dirty. But power isn’t intrinsically good or bad; the dirtiness is not in power itself, but in us. It is up to every one of us how to acquire power and for what purposes we want to use it.What was your favorite part of the writing process?
[My coauthor] Tiziana and I interviewed more than 100 people as we prepared to write the book. We’ve learned so much from every one of them, and we’re using some of their stories in the book to help our readers connect the findings from research in social sciences
to the experiences of these individuals and to their own experiences. Giving life to the important research findings through telling the stories of these incredible people is what I’ve probably enjoyed the most in the writing process, and we hope that our readers will enjoy the final product, too.What is power and how do you create it? Do you have to be rich or successful to have it?
Power is the ability to influence other people’s behavior
. But where does this ability come from? As we explain in our new book, when we distill power down to its fundamentals, we see that power comes from control over access to valued resources. You have power over me if you control access to resources that I value, and I have power over you if I control access to resources you value. It is then up to each one of us to decide how to use the power we have.What do you hope people take away from your new book?
I know from my research and experience that the innerworkings of power can be learned and that when people understand power, they are able to have a greater impact at home, at work, and in society. My hope is that the book will contribute to unleashing the potential for all to build and use power to make our lives, work, and society better. Machiavelli wrote his well-known essay about power for a 16th century Italian prince. Tiziana and I wrote this book for everyone, not only the powerful and those who want to emulate them, but also for those who have been excluded from power for too long. Our aim is to democratize power to make power understandable and accessible to all.
I am not one of the people at the top at work. Do I still have the power to effect change?
To identify who has power in an organization and who doesn’t, you should not rely on the organizational chart. Instead, you need to answer two questions and two questions only: What do people value in that setting and who controls access to what they value? This control may have little to do with authority, so even without a high organizational title or position, you can yield power in an organization by controlling access to valued resources.
How has COVID-19 changed the power dynamics in the workplace?
Workers have more power today than they did 18 months ago, partly because the pandemic has made all of us aware of how critically important essential workers are to the continuity of our society. Workers also have more power on the job market today because with many job vacancies job applicants have more choice and more bargaining power. But with less than 11 percent of American workers being unionized and given that in the vast majority of companies, workers have no representation on the board of directors, the decision-making power is still concentrated in the hands of top executives and shareholders. That being said, the pandemic may well lead to more changes, because employees are making it clear across industries that they want to have a say on their working conditions, on the working arrangements that affect them, and on their companies’ future strategy decisions.
Kristen Senz is the growth editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]