The Fundamentals of Power

When we understand the fundamentals of power, it’s something available to all of us. But only if we know what it is, how it works, and how to shift it in our favor.

Julie Battilana grew up in Marsay, France, in a family of Italian immigrants. Early on, she recognized an unfair division of labor between the men and women in her family.

It was a formative experience that played a role in her decision to become a social scientist who studies power differentials.

Julie Battilana is the author of Power for All and professor in the organizational development department at Harvard Business school and faculty chair of the social innovation and change initiative at the Kennedy School of Government.

In this exclusive interview, she unpacks our fallacies about power, the definition, and the strategies we can use to change the balance of power in any relationship.

What is it and What are the Fundamentals of Power?

what is power
what is power
Photographer: Clay Banks | Source: Unsplash

Everyone can influence other people’s behavior to varying degrees.

  • If you’re a parent, you have the power to make your kids eat their vegetables by refusing to cook something else.
  • Because I have a podcast that people listen to, it gives me the power to persuade people to buy Julie’s book.
  • Journalists have the power to expose corruption in organizations by writing stories that millions of people read.

Everyone has more power than they realize when they understand the definition of power.

Where Does Power Come From?

Photographer: Rodion Kutsaev | Source: Unsplash

Power doesn’t come from being the CEO, president of a country, or an evil dictator.

Everybody has access to resources that someone else needs and wants.

  • When you place an order at a restaurant, a waiter has power because they control access to the food you want to eat. That’s why you should never be a jerk to people who serve you food.
  • Suppose a business owner wants a media outlet to publish a story about his business. In that case, the media outlet has power because it controls the audience a business owner wants to reach.
  • When a landlord owns an apartment complex, they control access to a resource that tenants need and want

If you want to discover how much power you have, make a list of resources that you have that other people might need and want.

3 Fallacies About The Fundamentals of Power

falPhotographer: Hunters Race | Source: Unsplash

Most people believe that power is something they possess, comes from their position, rank, or status, and is evil. These commonly held beliefs are what Juliana calls the fallacies of power.

1. Power is Something You Possess

We mistakenly believe that power is something you possess and that personality traits determine your ability to obtain power.

If this were true, a handful of powerful people would rule the world, and the rest of us would follow their orders. Democratic countries wouldn’t have an election, and public companies wouldn’t have boards of directors.

2. Power is Positional

Often we perceive power as something that is reserved for people in positions of high status.

If power were purely positional, citizens wouldn’t dismantle dictatorships, employees and customers wouldn’t be able to oust CEOs, and unions wouldn’t negotiate with their companies for better wages.

3. Power is Bad

We mistakenly believe that power is evil and that we have to do bad things to acquire it.

Like anything else in life, you can use your power for good or evil.

  • A president can use his power to exploit the citizens and line the pockets of his cronies. Or he can use it to actually “drain the swamp.”
  • CEO’s can make decisions that make shareholders or improve the lives of their customers and employees

Whether power is bad or good depends on how you use it.

4 Ways to Change the Balance of Power in any Relationship

Photographer: Tingey Injury Law Firm | Source: Unsplash

Julie says that power is not static, but relational and there are 4 strategies to change the balance of power in every relationship.

1. Attraction

You convince someone that a resource is more important or valuable in two ways.

Increase the Perceived Value

Most of us don’t need nicer clothes, fancier cars, bigger houses, etc. Advertisers increase the perceived value of what they sell by getting us to associate emotions with their products. If you want to feel sexy buy this bag, wear this perfume, drive this car. Advertisers connect their brand to how people see themselves.

A degree from Harvard, Stanford, or any school of the same caliber doesn’t guarantee success.

Elite universities increase the perceived value of a degree from their institutions by rejecting more people than they accept.

Increase the Real Value

Let’s say you’re an aspiring author, musician, or startup founder with a small audience. If you want a book contract, record deal, or venture capitalist to invest in your startup, you’re not going to have much power to dictate the contract terms.

If you build an email list with millions of subscribers or thousands of people are using your app, you shift the balance of power in your favor. You’ll get better terms from a venture capitalist who invests in your company and a bigger advance from a publisher who wants to buy your book.

2. Consolidation

Many products and services used everyday use consolidation to shift the balance of power in their favor.

  • No matter where you live, there are probably 2–3 alternatives for high-speed internet access.
  • Cell phone service providers in the United States use consolidation to limit the available alternatives to Verizon, AT&T, and T-mobile.

Workers consolidate power when they go on strike to form unions. If the people who build the widgets in a factory stop working and nobody else can do their job, the factory’s output goes down.

Content creators could use consolidation to shift the balance of power in their favor by refusing to publish content on platforms like Facebook until they’re given access to the data about their audience or gives creators a share of the profits.

College students in America could consolidate their power by refusing to go to class until every university reduces tuition or makes college free. With no alternative sources of tuition revenue, the universities would be forced to agree to the students’ demands.

Drug cartels, tech companies, and utility providers all use consolidation to reduce the number of alternatives available to consumers, shifting the balance of power in their favor.

3. Withdrawal

You can use withdrawal to shift the balance of power in your favor by being willing to walk away. If you want to master using withdrawal, learn to negotiate like an Indian.

My dad has mastered the art of using withdrawal to buy cars because he has an innate understanding of the Jedi mind tricks of an FBI hostage negotiator. When we went to buy my car, the salesmen asked for a $5000 down payment. Four hours later, we drove off the lot with a new car and a $500 down payment because he was willing to walk away.

When I was looking for a job in 2007, I had two offers. But, I didn’t want to commute from San Francisco to Mountain View. The recruiter called me back every other day and increased the offer by $10,000 until the starting salary went from $60,000 to $80,000.

4. Expansion

Expansion shifts the balance of power by increasing the available alternatives. The more alternatives there are for access to a resource, the more power you have over the person who has access to it.

  • If you want to buy a cell phone case on Amazon for your new iPhone, there are thousands of alternatives. So, people who make cell phone cases are forced to compete on price.
  • The internet expanded the available alternatives for content from a handful of options to millions of them. This shifted the balance of power from large media companies, book publishers, and radio stations to individual creators with limited resources and limitless imagination.

When the number of alternatives for access to a resource increases, that resource becomes a commodity. And the resource you control becomes a commodity; you lose your power.

This is true if you’re a service provider, content creator, or founder of a company. It’s also why being the only option for something is better than being the best alternative.

Power and Authority are Not the Same

Photographer: Jakob Madsen | Source: Unsplash

The biggest misconception we have about power is that it comes from authority. We believe people at the top, the president, the CEO, etc., are the ones that have the most power.

Every organization has a network of relationships that determines who the most influential people are.

The executive assistant to a CEO is one of the most influential people in any organization. She controls access to the CEO’s schedule, filters the information that ends up on a CEO’s radar, and decides who the CEO will or won’t meet with. If you want to build a relationship with a CEO and not on the executive team, start by creating a relationship with the CEO’s assistant.

Power maps enable us to identify power brokers inside any organization, and often they are not the people we think they are.

Why Understanding the Fundamentals Power is So Important

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Understanding the fundamentals of power isn’t about manipulation, coercion, or taking advantage of people. By understanding these fundamentals, you access the power to change society, countries, communities, and organizations.

Civil unrest, student loan debt, polarized political climates, and poverty are problems that impact all of us because we live in an interdependent society. And if you want these things to change, it’s vital to understand the fundamentals of power. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to bring about the kind of social change to create a fair society in which everyone thrives.

Listen to my full interview with Julie Battilana on The Fundamentals of Power

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