November 16, 2021 10:41 PM EST

To make organizations and societies fairer and more dynamic, you have to understand how power works. Who has it, what are its sources, and how can you shift the balance?

But common misconceptions about power often hamper our ability to engage with the problems and inequities around us, argue Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro in their new book Power, for All.

The three fallacies they highlight are:

  • Some individuals have special traits that make them consistently powerful.
  • Power is a function of authority or rank in a hierarchy.
  • Wielding power is a dirty endeavor, involving cruelty and manipulation.

Battilana, a Harvard Business School and Kennedy School professor, and Casciaro, a professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, do an impressive job of providing a simple structure for thinking about how power works and encouragingly suggest that it’s possible to exercise it for good. Their ultimate focus in Power, for All is providing examples of how societal change happens, but along the way they also offer insights into how we can better navigate questions of power in our daily lives.

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Power is “the ability to influence another’s behavior, be it through persuasion or coercion,” the authors write. (p. x) “What enables one person to influence another is control over access to resources the other person values.” (p. 2)

They suggest that you can decode where power lies in any situation by answering two questions:

  • What do the people involved value?
  • Who controls access to what they value?

Battilana and Casciaro suggest that what people most value comes down to basic human needs for safety and self-esteem. We fulfill those needs in different ways that, depending on the context and the individual, can include material possessions, status, achievement, autonomy, and morality.

It makes sense that understanding which of these resources motivates someone allows you to better motivate them or negotiate with them. But across organizations and societies, it’s not always clear who controls access to them. The authors cite a manufacturing plant where the maintenance staff—not the management—had the most power over other workers. That’s because the machinery was prone to breaking down—endangering workers’ production-quota-based pay—and everyone was reliant on the maintenance staff to repair them.

You probably can think of examples where people who sit in relatively lower-level positions in a company hierarchy effectively yield more influence and power, and other examples where people with formal authority lacked any real power. If you’re looking to bring about change in an organization, Battilana and Casciaro recommend building detailed power maps that go beyond the official hierarchy. These maps catalog the resources each individual values, which they possess, and how much control they have over access to the resources. They also note any alliances among individuals, and your relationship with each of them.

“Power mapping may sound sneaky to some, but it is essential to having any kind of positive impact,” the authors write. (p. 75) They suggest that you can gather information for the maps by closely observing others. One useful question for determining who really has power is “Who do people go to for advice?”

In situations where you’re looking to make change, there are three types of individuals:

  • Endorsers, who are on your side.
  • Resisters, who are against the change.
  • Fence sitters, who are ambivalent about it.

Battilana and Casciaro recommend engaging most closely with the fence sitters as the critical coalition, since the endorsers are already won over and the resisters could slow you down or dissuade you.

Much of the second half of the book is devoted to how societal change happens, with examples including the Occupy Wall Street movement, environmental activists inspired by Greta Thunberg, and Google employees who got the company to abandon projects connected to the Department of Defense and China.

The authors suggest that for such change to succeed, there need to be agitators to stimulate outrage, innovators to present specific solutions to problems, and orchestrators to make the change happen. Unions have historically been powerful forces for shifting the balance of power and while technology can shift power around, it often winds up just recreating imbalances.

To be sure:

  • Power, for All is in some ways two books in one, with the first section providing a structured analysis of power and how to navigate it on an individual and organizational level. The second part is more focused on societal-level change, with forays into discussing the challenges presented by factors such as artificial intelligence and economic inequality. The result is that the book is a bit sweeping, likely leaving some readers wanting more in-depth discussion of how to effectively wield power at the micro- or macro-level, or both.

Memorable facts and anecdotes:

  • President Lyndon Johnson’s power came not principally from his height or personality, but from his astute understanding of what his colleagues valued. “He had an uncanny ability to read people, and made a habit of keeping people talking, always working to understand what his interlocutor really wanted. Then, he would find a way to control their access to it,” write Battilana and Casciaro. (p. 15)
  • Research suggests that those holding power have lower heart rates when stressed and greater tolerance for pain.
  • In a curious experiment, people were asked to think about a time when they networked for professional advancement and then fill in blank letters in a list of words. They were more likely to come up with words related to cleansing, such as soap or shower—which researchers associate with feeling some shame—than people not prompted to think about networking.
  • Research has found that when members take turns speaking to an extensive degree it correlates strongly with team performance.
  • Just knowing who has power in an organization itself brings power. One study found that workers who understood which colleagues went to each other for advice themselves tended to have more power.
  • Women MBAs with many professional connections and a primarily female inner circle have a 2.5 greater level of placement in leadership roles than women with fewer connections and closer male professional contacts.
  • Between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance efforts were effective 53% of the time and violent ones succeeded just 26% of the time.

Choice quotes:

  • “When leaders express humility, the quality of team members’ contributions increases, together with the job satisfaction and retention, and their engagement and learning orientation.” (p. 35)
  • “The reluctantly powerful, as it were, are most likely to use power well, but also less likely to acquire it, because they don’t seek it.” (p. 37)
  • “The need for safety and the need for self-esteem are so fundamental that they reliably shape power relationships across time and space.” (p. 42)
  • “While people value both competence and warmth in their colleagues, warmth rises to the top when people are forced to make tradeoffs.” (p. 62)

The bottom line is that Power, for All makes a convincing case for seeking power to pursue positive change and provides a useful structure for thinking about its dynamics.

You can order Power, for All at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.) All page numbers referenced above are for the hardcover edition.

You can read all of our book briefings here.

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