Recent reflections on the dimensions of cultural difference, specifically the concept of "power distance," have led me to think further about the nature of power and how it's expressed interpersonally.
What, precisely, do we mean by "power"? I find that my MBA students are often uncomfortable with the word; they tend to prefer "influence," which is much less...powerful. And, of course, their resistance suggests that there's something worth exploring here.
Merriam-Webster's first definition of "power" is the "ability to act or produce an effect." OK, but I'm particularly interested in interpersonal power. Can we get a little more specific?
Kai Sassenberg, et al's Why Some Groups Just Feel Better: The Regulatory Fit of Group Power* includes this definition of "relative power differences between groups":
One group has a higher capacity to modify the other group's state than vice versa.
Dacher Keltner, Deborah Gruenfeld and Cameron Anderson take a similar approach in Power, Approach and Inhibition (PDF):
We define power as an individual's relative capacity to modify others' states by providing or withholding resources or administering punishments.
So a simple definition of "interpersonal power" might be the ability to modify another person's state.
But this definition poses a problem: It identifies a subject--i.e. another person--and a relationship between ourselves and that subject--i.e. the capacity to modify--but it says nothing about us and our internal state. And yet our level of comfort with power (and our ability to wield it effectively) varies so widely in different circumstances that it seems essential to include ourselves in the equation more explicitly.
If "power" is the ability to act or produce an effect, then we daily face situations in which we feel more or less powerful; more or less able to affect circumstances...
Self-empowerment begins with self-awareness. We must first become aware of the many internal and external factors affecting our behavior and the difference between the two. Most of us find it relatively easy to identify forces "out there" that hold us back or down...but it is far more difficult to uncover the ways we undermine ourselves with self-limiting beliefs...
There are three beliefs that commonly disempower us. The first is the belief that power is determined primarily by factors outside our influence or control... At worst, ascribing our power or lack thereof to forces beyond our control results in overlooking those factors over which we do have some control.
A second, related way in which we unnecessarily undermine our power is believing our view of the world is the same thing as external reality... Then, acting in accordance with what we "know," we collude in the continued external manifestation of our view of reality.
A third belief that undermines us is the belief that power is a fixed commodity, a limited resource for which we must compete... The more I have, the less you have, and vice-versa. If I want more power, I will spend considerable time and energy trying to increase mine and prevent you from increasing yours. If I feel undeserving, I may try to avoid using my power, pretend not to have it or give it away to others whom I believe to be more deserving.
Williams makes it clear that although our understanding of power may initially focus on others and our mutual relationships, the ability to actually wield power ultimately depends on our level of self-awareness and our ability to modify our beliefs and our internal state. So in seeking to be more powerful (or more influential, if you prefer) we should first seek to better understand ourselves.
*Thanks to Nora Richardson of the Jackson Library reference staff for bringing this article to my attention.
Photo by octal. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.