The fundamental goal of high-performance collaboration and collective intelligence is for the whole to be greater than the sum. Said another way:
- 1 + 1 > 2
To achieve this, everybody has to be maximizing their individual contributions and the interplay between individuals has to be adding something to the group overall, not subtracting.
How do we do this? And what is the role of power and power dynamics in all this?
First, no single individual is smarter than the group as a whole, provided that the group is achieving its collaborative potential. This also suggests that there needs to be some level of shared control in order for the whole to be greater than the sum.
Second, when power is distributed across several people, at any given moment, there is some optimal formation for maximizing the power of the group as a whole. Organizing is a way of discovering and realizing that formation.
(An “organization” is a more stable, persistent, and rigid form of organizing. Organizations are inclined to preserve their initial form, whether or not that best suits their purposes anymore.)
Third, figuring out what the collective wants takes time. It’s tempting and even correct to implement shortcuts at times that create some power imbalances for the greater good. An organization is an example of this, but others include appointed leadership, elected leadership, money, and relational influence (i.e. going by the word of the people you know or trust without doing your own comprehensive thinking).
These shortcuts act as power proxies for the collective. However, they also create opportunities for abuse, so when you implement them, you ideally also implement checks and balances. Sometimes, those checks and balances don’t work so well.
In order to navigate all of this, we need to have high literacy around what power is and how to recognize and navigate different power dynamics as well as structures that help support this.
Definition and Etymology
The Oxford English Dictionary defines power as the “ability to do or effect something or anything, or to act upon a person or thing.”
Power is derived from the Latin posse, which means “to be able.” The word, “possible,” shares this same root.
There are two important considerations (and complications) when it comes to power:
- The ability to do what you want (i.e. agency)
- The ability to do what would best serve your goals
These are not always the same things (even for a single individual). Add more people, and it gets even more complicated.
Power Over, Power To, Power With
- power over = domination
- power to = self-realization, i.e. empowerment
- power with = integration, i.e. “the whole is greater than the sum”
In his book, Impro, Keith Johnstone suggests that everything we do as humans can be viewed as a status game — exercises in raising and lowering our own status and the status of those around us. Each of these actions can also be seen as one of the three types of power.
For example, sitting up straight and leaning forward might be a physical way of raising your status (e.g. power to). Talking over someone might be a verbal way of lowering someone else’s status (power over).
Doing these exercises helps us internalize how all of our actions and the structures around us impact our status and those around us. It helps us become more aware as well as expand our own lenses around power. It also helps us see how complicated this all can be. There are no absolutes when it comes to power and status. For example, being tall can both raise and lower status. It can make you more physically imposing, which might raise status, but it also draws attention to you and might make you feel awkward, which might lower status.
There's also research on the status games we play. E.g. Susan Fiske's Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us. There's lots of research that shows that having status makes it harder for us to be empathetic. Specifically, high-status people are:
- More likely to misinterpret nonverbal behavior
- Less accurate at reading emotions, such as suffering
- More likely to confuse friendliness for flirtatiousness
- More likely to behave unethically.
- More likely to stereotype others and to miss individual nuances in behavior.
Family Dynamics and Bystanding
David Kantor, a family therapist, offers another way to analyze power dynamics. He breaks down interactions into the following actions:
A group with a good dynamic finds ways to engage in all of these actions in healthy, complementary ways. Identifying patterns may help you assess the health of the dynamic. For example, different people may fall into the habit of playing specific roles. One of the most common signs of an unhealthy dynamic is the dysfunctional bystander.
There's research on why we bystand largely in relationship to moral courage (e.g. watching a crime take place and choosing not to intervene).
- Altruistic inertia. When you think there are other witnesses, you feel less responsibility to intervene.
- Pluralistic ignorance. Mistaking others' calmness as a sign that there's no danger.
Counters to these:
- Raising an alarm helps motivate others to action
- Training people to recognize and respond to crisis
We can organize all of the different ways to raise and lower status into more detailed power frameworks. Many frameworks tend to center around power over, which seems to be the dominant paradigm of power in Western cultures. (Or perhaps it is less about region and more about gender.)
For example, the political scientist, founder of neoliberalism, and author of Power and Interdependence (1977), Joseph Nye differentiates between hard power (e.g. coercion and payment) and soft power (e.g. attraction and persuasion). Both of these are largely variations of power over.
Political scientist Steven Lukes, author of Power: A Radical View (1974), identified three dimensions of power, which John Gaventa later expanded on in Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (1982):
- Decision-making (e.g. hard, explicit power)
- Non-decision-making (e.g. soft, implicit power)
- Ideological (e.g. soft, implicit power)
The psychologist, Rollo May, offered a framework in 1972 that looks more comprehensively at power:
- Exploitative (power over)
- Manipulative (power over)
- Competitive (power over and to)
- Nutrient (power to)
- Integrative (power with)
Archon Fung developed a framework in response to Lukes and Gaventa, which he thought was more oriented to explaining domination (power over) than it was to enabling liberation (power to):
Power Analysis and Building Power
People in the social justice world often talk about “building power.” As noted earlier, there are lots of built-in power imbalances in most groups. Building power is about overcoming these power imbalances.
There are many frameworks more oriented around this notion of building power.
Dacher Keltner has noted what he calls the "power paradox": The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively (e.g. empathy and social intelligence) are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.
Richard Healey and Sandra Hinson of the Grassroots Policy Project name The Four Faces of Power as:
- Organizing people and resources for direct political involvement in visible decision-making arenas
- Building durable, long-term political infrastructure: networks of organizations that are aligned around shared goals, who can shape political agendas
- Making meaning on the terrain of ideology and worldview
- Using coercion and force to keep groups in line and quell resistance to the status quo
The Gettysburg Project offers these Levels of Power:
- Everyday Politics: Individual redress
- Covering Policies: Protect whole classes of beneficiaries
- Structural Power: Money, knowledge, leverage, and allies
- Knowledge / data
- Allies (scope of conflict)
- Ethical and Epistemic Power: Values, beliefs, ideology, and public narratives
PERE Changing States Framework lists the following arenas for change:
(I think it’s missing an important dimension — Consumer.)
In the community organizing / activism / nonprofit world, when most people refer to, "power analysis," they're describing the framework first articulated by Anthony Thigpenn. Thigpenn's framework (often attributed to the organization he founded, SCOPE, which described the process in its book, Power Tools: A Manual for Organizations Fighting for Justice) is based on these questions:
- Who has power in your issue area? Plot them according to the powers they have (e.g. decision-making, influencers, etc.)
- Who has power among your opposition? Plot them as above.
- Who is impacted by your issue area and are not yet organized?
- Michael Kraus, Stéphane Côté, Dacher Keltner. "Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy." Psychological Science. October 25, 2010.
- Adam D. Galinsky, Joe C. Magee, M. Ena Inesi, Deborah H Gruenfeld. "Power and Perspectives Not Taken." Psychological Science. December 1, 2006.
- Jason Marsh. "You Can’t Buy Empathy." Greater Good Magazine. December 14, 2010.
- Paul K. Piffa, Daniel M. Stancatoa, Stéphane Côtéb, Rodolfo Mendoza-Dentona, Dacher Keltnera. "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. January 26, 2012.
- Jeremy Adam Smith, Dacher Keltner. "The Psychology of Taking a Knee." Scientific American. September 29, 2017.
- Jason Marsh, Dacher Keltner. "We Are All Bystanders." Greater Good Magazine. September 1, 2006.
- Dacher Keltner. "The Power Paradox." Greater Good Magazine. December 1, 2007.