What is power?

Jennifer Jordan, a professor at IMD Business School, is a leading expert on the question of power in conflict. But how important is it actually? And what does it do to people?

How important is power when we think about negotiations?
In life in general, power is the un­spoken currency in every domain in life. We know it, but we don’t articulate very well what it means. In my field I have the pleasure of really articulating what power means and where it comes from – and why it leads to people to get what they want, especially in a negotiation.

So what is power? And what are its transformative effects, as you call them?
I define power in two ways. One, having control over the things people want. And two, the ability to do what you want without permission from others. As a psychologist, I would say you can never ignore the individual. Power transforms everybody, but the reaction to it is different. Power acts as a certain mag­nifying glass and makes you take action. It leads us to be more goal oriented and makes you go inwards of less perspective taking because you don’t need others to give you permission, or to authorize you.

Is the quote “Absolute power ­corrupts absolutely” something you would ascribe to?
I think yes. But that definition of absolute power is very murky. You can have external accountability, so someone else checking your ­power, but you can also have internal accountability, meaning things like self-control. The most dangerous combination is people who have a high need for power and have a lack of self-control. People then don’t control their power.

You said that power leads to people speaking more, speaking more loudly. Now we see a lot of discussion around quiet leadership and leaders speaking last and so on. Is there a change in the way we think about leadership or is this just wishful thinking?
There is a change. As the powerful become a more diverse body of people, I think there are different styles that are then starting to have influence. I think different generations have different expectations for how they want their leaders to act.

Is there a gender bias in how power transforms people?
I don’t know if there’s a gender bias. Quite often, we believe that certain effects in society are gender effects, but they’re actually power effects. When you equate power, people tend to act similarly. A lot of effects are more power-driven than they are gender-driven. But power is social. If I don’t give you power, you don’t have power. What people accept in the powerful is changing and it is also culturally-based.

If someone comes to you and says: “I feel like I have a lot of power” – what can they do to do this in a responsible way?
They can try to take the perspective of the other side and ask questions. And also really look at their intentions.

And someone that doesn’t know that he or she doesn’t have power – what can they do?
Write down what gives you power. Are you really as powerless as you think? Because oftentimes we tend to just be attuned to the most obvious parts of power. And actually ask the other side “Do you mind if I share my perspective with you?” to sort of force them out of that egocentric mode where they’re going inwards to go more outwards.

Jennifer Jordan, a professor at IMD Business School, is a leading expert on the question of power in conflict. But how important is it actually? And what does it do to people?

Photos: Schranner Negotiation Institute


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