I have asked thousands of people the question, “do you want to have power?” (Literally.) Oftentimes, these rooms are filled with people who you might assume would be biased toward saying yes: students in business school or executive education programs, and executives and leaders from Fortune 500 organizations and nonprofits.
But the results are consistently split — about half say yes and half say no. Why is that?
This love/hate relationship with power is pretty typical. Many of us want power because it helps us achieve our goals, but we also know, and have often seen ourselves, that power can be abused, causing terrible consequences.
In my work with Prof. Deb Gruenfeld at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, we teach students that power is ‘the ability to control resources and administer consequences.’ This in itself is neither good nor bad. It’s neutral. The intent or goal of the person who wields the power renders it good or bad.
In the class, we focus on how we use power, rather than how to acquire or amass it. Whether it’s immediately apparent or not, we all have some power. It is an unavoidable part of our reality and we all have to participate. What really matters is striving to understand power and how we use what we have to meet our goals in service of others. Whether we love it or hate it, there are ways to effectively and responsibly use it.
The literature tells us that there are numerous ways power takes shape. Two forms that are well-documented are called “dominance” and “prestige,” also known as authoritative power and affiliative power. The former is more about wielding power over a group of people, while in the latter, power comes from gaining the respect of others.
Dominance is the style of power we might associate with a leader who barks orders, who uses force and intimidation to get what they want. Those who rely on prestige, meanwhile, engender respect and admiration of others. Both are effective and useful in different contexts — but the quality of the relationships they create with others is dramatically different.
Importantly, dominance, while more forceful or decisive than prestige, is not inherently abusive. In a moment of crisis, for example, dominance may be needed. Concerning oneself with too many different perspectives and feelings may prevent us from providing the assertive guidance that is needed to create clarity and emerge smoothly from the crisis.
Understanding these different ways to use power can help shed light on the dynamics that are lingering just beneath the surface of every interaction. Regardless of one’s position or how much power one has in a given situation, this knowledge can also help people more effectively navigate the power dynamics that exist in every team, organization, or system.
But it goes further than that too. In our view, people have a responsibility to heed these lessons to not just help them accomplish their goals, but also to avoid the missteps that are associated with abuses of power.
Ultimately, none of us can opt out of power and power structures. While the context or situation may create different dynamics, every relationship between two or more people comes with a power dynamic. But if we explore power, studying and coming to recognize how it shows up in different situations, we may be better equipped to successfully navigate power structures and work toward the results we seek.
In workshops and with our coaching clients, we find the following exercise helpful to explore, uncover, and navigate power.
- To start, think of a place or situation in which you have power.
- What are your goals in that situation? What could more power allow you to achieve?
- Now, knowing what you do about dominance and prestige, which would be most effective for you to accomplish your goals?