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Power as the ability to influence the system

There is a lot of talk about power lately. In (alarmingly) increasing number of organizations, power is at subconscious level perceived as a rather bad phenomenon.

As if power is a 0-sum game – when I have more of it, then you must have less. And as this puts you in a disadvantageous position, I should avoid having more power. So people become very careful in making sure that no one has too much power, emphasizing equality and in its extreme “everybody is a CEO”-type of slogans. But what if the power is not a 0-sum game?

Ability to influence the system

If we look at power as the person’s ability to influence the whole system (family, team, company, etc.) so that all parts of the system benefit from it, then from this angle, power takes on a completely different meaning.

If we are part of a system, our behavior and decision are affected by it. I have asked from several influential scientist and practitioners in the field of organizations for their subjective opinion. And they all have proposed a very similar number, that the system / environment we are in determines around 90% of our behavior and decisions. Therefore, the ability to influence the system is definitely POWERFUL. As when making the whole system better, I am influencing other a lot.

Everyone who is part of the system (regardless of their position in the official hierarchy) is affected by the system AND at the same time affecting the system. The power stems from using that knowledge and act upon that – I can ALWAYS influence the system in ways that everyone wins (the system becomes better for everyone). And thus, have impact on others.

The more I am able to influence the system for the better (so that everyone wins), the more power I have. The more power I have, the more I can influence the system. This is probably an exponential function. And it is far from being a 0-sum game, in contrary.

Power and sense of security

Does power mean security? That the more I have it (and usually the higher I go in the official hierarchy), the more secure my status becomes? I suggest the opposite.

Power in this context means action – to change the system. And all systems (note – systems, not people!) are known to be striving for homeostasis – prefer the status quo, stability.

In other words, any action towards improving the system is a RISK, even if the aim is to improve the system and make it better for everyone.

The power is not a written rule or agreement, but it is rather the inner belief of each participant in the system that I am able to influence it. And despite of risk, I will act upon this belief – I have the power, I use it and through that, the system gets better for everyone. And I have even more power to influence it even more (without reducing other parties’ power, e.g. their ability to influence the system we are in).

But what if power has become a source of security – I have the power, but I use it to change the system in a way that only I will benefit? Well, you’ve probably all seen organizations like this.

And what if power has been made a “commodity” – everybody is given one just like that, as granted. Where every person can have a say in every decision and in its extremes even veto every decision? And the power is granted without the need to earn it in “action” – by taking the risk and showing your ability to improve the system for the better for everyone? Well, you’ve probably all at least heard of these kinds of organizations, too.

Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets is an organizational development mentor, change management consultant and leadership trainer with a strong academic research background. His main job is helping business leaders operate in uncertainty and implement organizational change. Elar’s range of topics is very wide. In his development and consulting projects, the focus is usually on the entire organization, focusing on the most important management processes that affect performance. Elar is an expert in addressing broader strategic issues (eg changing organizational culture, increasing organizational adaptability and flexibility, etc.) as well as more tactical challenges (eg eliminating the negative effects of silos, aligning the performance management system with strategic goals, etc).

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