"Power Can Be Dirty, But It Doesn't Have To Be." - That's the title of Chapter 2 in Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro's new book: Power, For All. The book offers an in-depth examination of how individuals wield power in organizations. The authors argue that we all have to understand how power works and how we can use our power in constructive ways to achieve important objectives. In Chapter 2, they argue, "Power is neither inherently moral nor inherently immoral. History shows us that power can be used for virtuous purposes as well as dishonorable ones. Whether it becomes dirty in our hands depends on how we gain and keep it and the purpose for which we use it."
How should think about the power we may possess (or lack)? In this interview, Casciaro explains:
Power comes from control over valued resources. You have power if you have something that the other person or group needs or wants and if they have few alternatives to you to get it, such that you control their access to that valued resource. So in any power relationship, you want to ask: “What is it that people want?” Because if you understand that, you are well equipped to try to deliver it. And “Who controls access to it?” Because if you figure that out, you can create some dependency so that people need you to get a desired resource.
Every power relationship, no matter with whom or in what context, can be read and understood based on the four elements that result: Do you have what the other party wants? How many alternatives to you do they have to get it? But you’re not done. Because whether you have power over them is conditional on whether they have power over you. So you also need to know: Do they have something that you want? Do you have alternatives to them for getting it?
These four elements are always playing with each other in a power relationship, and they give us four strategies to rebalance power with somebody: get them interested in the resources you’ve got, become less substitutable as a source of those things, make yourself less interested in what they’ve got, and increase the number of your alternatives to get what they’ve got.
Of course, power can be intoxicating, as the authors acknowledge and explain. To protect against the corrosive effects of power, they argue that we must cultivate humility and empathy in our leaders at all levels of an organization. Empathy, of course, has become a much-discussed concept lately, particularly during the pandemic. Leaders need to work hard on developing empathy with their employees as well as their customers. That takes a concerted effort to avoid the isolating nature of top leadership positions. I also believe fervently that leaders need to make sure that they are retaining some level of normalcy in their lives. It is certainly more efficient for top executives to have someone else grab your dry cleaning, order your groceries delivered, and hire landscapers to take care of your lawn. However, engaging in some of these activities yourself, rather than outsourcing them, will keep you connected with how many of your employees and customers live on a daily basis. It keeps you grounded. No amount of leadership workshops can replace the empathy-building that occurs from engaging in these simple tasks of daily life. If you want to be empathetic and humble, think about how you live your life, not just how you conduct yourself at work.
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