In the social sciences, power is the ability of an individual or group of individuals to influence the behaviour of other people or organisations.
We often see power as something negative, however, when used appropriately it can be a transformative tool, where its objectives serve to help others grow personally and empower them.
In the 1960s, social psychologists John RP French and Bertram Raven established five basic categories to classify the different sources of power.
First, there is legitimate power, which is given by the place someone occupies within an organisation.
Secondly, there is referent power, which is a person’s ability to attract and generate a sense of belonging that someone earns because of their charisma or interpersonal skills.
Thirdly, there is expert power, which comes from personal skills or experience that gives a high level of trust and respect.
Fourthly, there is reward power, which is based on the fact that motivation is only achieved to the extent that there is a capacity to grant rewards.
And finally, there is coercive power, which is based on the potential to deliver threats and punishments to force another person to change his or her behaviour.
There is a tendency to equate power with the position that someone has within a hierarchical scale, assuming that power belongs to those people who run organisations, such as directors, managers, bosses. We don’t realise that power can be much more distributed.
It can be in the corners and pockets of an organisation, something that has little to do with the rank of the people who participate in it. Often this hidden or covert power is much stronger than power achieved hierarchically. We tend to personalise power and think that it is something that is given to us by certain personal characteristics, which make us a powerful person. But in reality, power is always relative, it depends on others validating it.
That is where power really lies, it is not something we possess as individuals, but depends on others’ recognition of that power.
Power is energy to act, to change the world around us and can also be used to change people’s behaviour. Power can be used to do good or to do evil, but it is always in action.
Like the power in an automobile, it can be wielded to get out of a compromising situation if used correctly, or to inflict great pain or even death if used without control.
In the same way, power without control or without proper use can have dire consequences for the environment. A positive aspect of power is that it provides a sense of control that facilitates risk-taking and at the same time favours decision-making. Fundamental aspects in the management of any organisation.
As negative aspects, we could highlight two.
On the one hand, it makes us overconfident, it drags us towards arrogance, believing that we are invincible.
On the other hand, power has the danger of making people overconfident, especially if other individuals are below them in the hierarchy.
Power can make us insensitive or disinterested in their needs and desires.
This is because we may come to think that we do not need those around us.
These two problems are very harmful for people who have to make decisions, as they cause those around them to stop contributing their criteria and proposals.
They lose all those proposals that can help them to define a more accurate and realistic approach, and consequently, these decisions are much less accurate and incomplete.
In the face of this, two antidotes can be used which, although they may seem hackneyed, are highly effective. Against arrogance, humility must be rescued, and against excessive self-confidence, we must make use of empathy. Humility is the sum of two words, humility and ambition.
Although at first glance they may seem incompatible, they are complementary.
An empowered person must be aware of his or her limitations in the areas of knowledge, skills and abilities, but at the same time be ambitious in the goals to be set.
Thus, humbition can be a great source of inspiration.
On the other hand, empathy is essential when working in a team.
Organisations today need to get the most out of themselves and others in order to be competitive. That is why empathy becomes a critical value to cultivate, otherwise we would not be able to generate interdependent relationships that bring value.
Therefore, incorporating empathy and humbition into the management of organisations can be an interesting antidote that brings us closer to a more constructive, shared and value-generating vision of power.
For more information on this topic, we recommend the book written jointly by Tiziana Casciaro, professor of organisational behaviour at the Rotman School in Toronto, and Julie Battilana of the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, entitled Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business. (2021)