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Power, for All

A Conversation with Author Julie Battilana

Power, For All book coverJulie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro are the co-authors of the recently published book Power, for All. Impact entrepreneurs need to understand the dynamics of power in order to make effective change in their organizations and beyond. The authors make the case that power is available to everyone, and provide a variety of helpful tools that anyone can use to increase their impact and achieve their goals. These include methods to develop “power maps”, utilize four strategies for adjusting the balance of power, and identify the three roles necessary for the success of collective change efforts.

Julie Battilana is a professor of organizational behavior and social innovation at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is also the founder and faculty chair of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative. Tiziana Casciaro is a professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. I had the pleasure of connecting with Julie to talk about the book and the techniques described in it.

Allison Lee: What would you most like impact entrepreneurs to take away from the book? 

Julie Battilana: Pervasive misconceptions about power fueled our motivation for writing this book. In working with social changemakers over the years, it became evident to us that the reason many failed or came up short of having the type of impact they aimed for was because they either ignored power or misunderstood it. It is critical for social changemakers especially, but for all of us too, to become students of power, to gain a better understanding of what power is and how it works.

Power is the ability to influence others’ behavior, be it through persuasion or coercion. But the key question is: where does power come from? It resides in control over access to valued resources. These are the fundamentals of power: I have power over you if I control access to resources that you value, and you have power over me if you control access to resources that I value. You may control access to a budget I depend on to complete the project that I am working on, or you may be connected to a person I need to consult with for their expertise; if any of these are true, you certainly have power over me. However, it matters whether I can gain access to this budget or expert through other channels, or whether you are the only person who can provide these resources. If you are the only one, then you have considerable power over me. It follows from the fundamentals of power that power is inherently relational, and it is not a zero-sum game: we may both have power over each other, and whether our relationship is balanced or imbalanced depends on how much we each need the resources that the other party has to offer and the extent to which we each have alternative channels to access these resources.

It is critical for social changemakers especially, but for all of us too, to become students of power, to gain a better understanding of what power is and how it works.

It is important to note that we do not only value money and material possessions, but also psychological resources, such as affiliation, recognition, autonomy, achievement, and morality. You may, for instance, want to be associated with the moral values that I stand for; if so, this gives me some power over you. This is a source of power that has enabled social change makers like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King, and more recently Malala Yousafzai and Great Thunberg, to mobilize people as part of collective movements for change.

Understanding the fundamentals of power is critical if one wants to build and exercise power. It is then up to each one of us to decide how to use our own power. Some use their power to force others to comply with their will. But others use their power to uplift others. This brings to mind Toni Morrison’s quote, “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Julie Battilana on Understanding Power to Have More Impact

The book states that “personal skills and attributes that help us gain power in one environment can actually harm our chances of gaining and keeping it in another”. How do you assess environments? Is this where power maps come into play?

Once you understand the fundamentals of power, you are equipped to analyze the balance of power not only in your own relationships but in all relationships in your workplace and in society. In other terms, you are equipped to map power relationships across contexts. All you need to do to assess the balance of power in any relationship between two parties is answer two questions. What do the parties value? And who controls access to what they value?

Police protest control line

These two questions are at the heart of power mapping. They allow you to determine who the key players are in your environment, who is in control of what, who desires something they do not have, what the most valued resources are, and so on. From there, you can map the power relationships around you. This skill is in itself a great source of power.

However, there are traps along the way. One is to believe that your personal skills and attributes will be great sources of power in any context. They may be in some contexts but not in others. It all depends on what is valued. Another trap is to believe that you can simply look at an organizational chart to know who has power in an organization. It’s not that easy. Authority and power are not one and the same. Authority is the formal right to give orders and commands. As such, it can be a source of power, especially in contexts in which authority is highly respected and valued. But authority is no guarantee of power. And, relatedly, you do not need to be high in the hierarchy to have power if you have another means of accessing a critical resource that others value.

In our research, we have found that the disconnect between authority and power can and often does emerge through networks. In studying change implementation in organizations, Tiziana and I have found that many people further down the hierarchy, like middle managers for example, can be very effective at implementing organizational changes, and often more so than people further up the hierarchy. One reason for this finding is their networks. Our research reveals that people who are well connected in the organization and to whom others go to for advice are more effective change makers. Why? Because they are the people others trust, and trust is an important conduit of influence. When someone you are close to genuinely explains to you why they think that a change is needed, you are more likely to listen to them.

In a nutshell, drawing a power map may boil down to asking just two questions. But in analyzing the answers, it is critical to consider all sources of power, be they personal characteristics, rank, role, or network.

The book outlines four methods to adjust the balance of power: attraction, withdrawal, consolidation, and expansion. Have you found any method to be more effective than the others, or do they all have the potential to be equally effective, depending on the circumstances? 

The beauty of the fundamentals of power is that they reveal four strategies to rebalance power in a relationship. Just as there are four elements that define the distribution of power across two parties in any relationship — the resources each party values, and whether they each have alternatives to access those valued resources — there are four strategies for shifting the balance of power: attraction, consolidation, withdrawal, and expansion.

Attraction has to do with the first element of power in the relationship, which is the value of the resources one party has to offer in the eyes of the other party. It entails persuading the other party that what you have to offer is valuable to them.

The second strategy concerns reducing the alternatives the other party has to access the resources they need or want. This is a strategy of consolidation: those who control a valued resource band together to become the sole providers of this resource, hence becoming difficult to replace.

The third strategy is withdrawal: it entails decreasing one’s interest in the resources that the other party has to offer.

The final strategy is expansion, whereby one generates additional alternatives for gaining access to the valued resources so as not to depend on one provider.

These four strategies apply to organizations competing in an industry as much as they apply to a professional negotiating working conditions or a group seeking large-scale social change.

Masked African American Youth

No one method is universally more effective than the others. Because power is relational and varies in accordance with existing power hierarchies specific to each context, the effectiveness of each rebalancing strategy will vary depending on each situation. To decide which strategy or set of strategies is best suited in a particular context, one must start by drawing a careful power map. Analyzing the power map will help provide tactical guidance. Whereas attraction may be more effective in the case of an advertising campaign, withdrawal in the form of a boycott, for instance, might be more effective when trying to change business practices in an industry.

The idea that power imbalance is bad for the powerful as well as the powerless is an interesting and important point in the book. Do you think awareness of that point can make the powerful more willing to relinquish power?

To build a fairer, more sustainable future, it is in everyone’s interest to reduce inequalities. The climate crisis, on the only home we all share, is a prime example of our interdependence. But research also underscores that high levels of inequality tend to increase crime rates, can weaken economic growth, and make for less healthy societies for all, even the rich and powerful. Research has found that when the distribution of rewards becomes so unequal as to be perceived as blatantly unfair, those suffering from a power disadvantage are more likely to attempt to upend the current system entirely. Given the possibility of an uprising against economic and social inequity, the rich and powerful should realize that it is in their interest “to argue for a radical shift toward real sharing of prosperity,” as MIT Nobel-prize-winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have pointed out.

However, while this realization might make them consider the idea of relinquishing part of their power, we cannot rely solely on the will of the privileged. Research in social psychology has well-documented that power has pernicious effects on our psychology even in short doses. If thinking about power for just a few minutes can wreak havoc, imagine the implications of holding positions of power for years.

When the distribution of rewards becomes so unequal as to be perceived as blatantly unfair, those suffering from a power disadvantage are more likely to attempt to upend the current system entirely.

This is partly why collective action is critical. With fewer resources at their disposal, the power disadvantaged must band together to change the rules of the game. Individually, they may not have the resources required to bring about change. But together, they can pool their resources to collectively control the levers of change. Social movements are prime examples of collective power in action. Movements across time have challenged corrupt governments, oppressive laws, and cultural norms, changing the material conditions of marginalized groups and moving the needle towards a more just society.

Man scaling cliff

Given many people’s disillusionment with the current state of the world, do you think your book is hopeful? 

The state of the world is indeed concerning. The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the marks of inequality — health, economic, social, and political. In its wake, it is urgent that we restore the conditions for a strong democracy, and build a society that is greener, fairer, and more equitable. As we explain in the book, research underscores that, despite their negative consequences, crises facilitate change. Their tendency to weaken the established orders, including power hierarchies, provide the chance to alter the structure of society. Though too many of us have suffered significant losses over the past two COVID-19 years, we have an opportunity to opt for change moving forward. It is up to all of us now to push for change and dare to rethink and redesign our social and economic systems. The fundamentals of power we put forth in the book provide a framework for rethinking these systems by asking what we should value, collectively, and how control over valued resources should be distributed. These two guiding questions provide guidelines for such an exercise.

It is urgent that we restore the conditions for a strong democracy, and build a society that is greener, fairer, and more equitable.

In our research and in the book, we identify three roles necessary for the success of collective efforts for change in organizations and society, especially in times of crisis: the roles of agitators, innovators, and orchestrators.

Agitators are those who speak out against the status quo and raise public awareness of problems. Innovators are the ones who propose alternatives to the status quo. Orchestrators are those who help implement these solutions at scale and ensure their adoption.

What makes us most hopeful is that both in our research and in the classroom, we have the honor of witnessing the emergence and the development of a new generation of agitators, innovators, and orchestrators, committed to effecting change. Dedicated organizers have agitated globally for racial, gender, and climate justice. As for innovators, in my role as the founder and faculty chair of the Social Innovation + Change Initiative, I have had the pleasure of working with social innovators from around the globe who are at the forefront of developing innovations. In the book, we share Jean Rogers’ journey as she founded the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, a non-profit organization that has developed sustainability accounting standards for over 80 sectors. Finally, in the book, we also dive into the story of Maria Rachid and the tremendous feat of orchestration the Argentine LGBT Federation enacted to become the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010.

These examples make us hopeful. Undoubtedly, the task of transforming our economic and social systems is an uphill battle. It requires all of us to contribute, whether as agitators, innovators, or orchestrators depending on our own talents and preferences. There will be setbacks; indeed, it was Dr. King who said, “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Our hope is that Power, For All is a tool for all those striving to build a fairer and greener tomorrow.

Allison Lee is co-founder of Alpine CSR Advisors, which specializes in CSR/ESG strategy and implementation, with a focus on business and social impact metrics. She has over fifteen years of experience in CSR research and consulting, and has partnered with Fortune 500 corporations, foundations, academic institutions, and other nonprofits globally.
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