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Recognizing the Structure of Power

In his book The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene explores a wide range of examples of the application of power and influence with others. The book has a decidedly dark feel about it, a Machiavellian leaning that can make for a bad taste in your mouth. Entertaining reading, but not something I would consider a guide to live by. This stands in stark contrast with one of the sessions of the recent AYE Conference, where we explored the nuances of power in a setting that is much more aligned with the idea of common good rather than a zero-sum proposition.

As with other sessions at the conference, the setting was experiential, and much of the structure was left to the participants. In this case, we were split into groups and to come up with a definition of power that worked for the whole group. What made this interesting was the meta-request, that we capture all the examples of use of power during this exercise. There were the examples one would normally expect, as someone would get the ball rolling with a suggested approach to solve the problem, or someone might break into the conversation to be sure that they got their point across when they really wanted to. There were also examples that were not so obviously application of power, as some of us consciously chose to remain silent to increase the pressure to get to closure, or the weight we felt on our shoulders as people from another group innocently came to observe what we were doing.

We wield power through our actions, our gestures, our words, our mere physical presence. Sometimes that power is wielded by what we don’t do, rather than what we do. Indeed, anything that can influence the senses or expectations of others can influence the turn of events. Showing up to work on time, taking sides in a discussion, not choosing to run that set of regression tests after the last change. Power is applied in degrees: it is not a boolean on or off, but rather a broad scale of application. We can be heavy-handed in trying to influence a situation, or we can let off on the gas if we see that the light ahead will be turning red before we get to the intersection. While we normally think of the obvious application of power, it is the more subtle forms that can be more influential – as in a musician that conveys just as much meaning with the rests as she does with the notes. The please or thank you, acknowledging a colleague for a job well done.

Most of us go through our lives with little conscious focus on the application of power, and little awareness of the measured use of power that takes place around us. Indeed, we are often only obliquely aware of the power of our own actions as we work with others, and don’t understand how our unconscious application of power can have both positive and negative effects on those around us – and on ourselves. Often without conscious application, it is the negative effects that will predominate. With focus, though, we can understand many elements of power, and learn to better harness power to everyone’s advantage.

For one thing, we can start to take more control in situations were we may currently feel helpless. When we start to recognize we have choices, when we consciously decide to wield power to do things that are more congruent with our values, we can avoid many of the stresses that otherwise might take hold. With practice, we can learn to recognize the application of power by those around us, and we can improve our ability to consciously manage our own approaches to using power and influence. Use of power and influence can be congruent or not, and we need to be careful to avoid the use of power at the expense of others.

We were asked initially in the session how we would feel if we knew an adversary had ten times the power we did. My first reaction was that this would be a bad thing, but on reflection, that knowledge is power in itself. Having this knowledge allows me to potentially identify ways to leverage that other person’s power, identify areas where we have a common ground (and I think we have that common ground more often than not) so that this person’s immense power could be used to magnify my own influence. When combined, our power would be daunting. Using our own sources of power increases our influence linearly, while combining our power with others increases our power exponentially. To take a group and harness all their power in the same direction can be an awe-inspiring experience. I have seen this occur several times in the software industry, but its rarity is one of the reasons that it stands out so distinctly from the norm.

Everything we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, is an expression of power. This is true whether conscious or not in application, or positive or negative in its form or result. We need to cultivate our awareness of the power we wield, harness its strength to influence change in a positive way, and understand how we can collaborate with others in a way that multiplies our power many times over. As a driver for change, for influencing a desired result, the conscious use of power is one of the most effective tools we have at our disposal.

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