Power Over, Power With, Power To/For, and Power Within

How many choices have you faced today? How many decisions have you made? Most have been subconscious – choosing to get out of bed, choosing to eat, choosing to meet your responsibilities. But each decision point has not been a foregone conclusion. Like a choose your own adventure book, you have faced choices dozens – maybe hundreds – of times in your day so far. At each decision point, you have exercised power – choosing one path, and closing down the myriad of other possibilities you could have chosen. We all exercise power throughout our days, so it’s no surprise that when we interact with other humans – who are exercising their own power – things can become… challenging, and confusing.

In a 1968 speech given to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. defined power as “the ability to achieve purpose and effect change” – I wonder how many of us have this definition in mind when we’re in the midst of a challenging conversation with a team member, or a colleague. Over the course of decades, many authors and researchers have identified four distinct types of power (synthesized and somewhat popularized by Brené Brown): Power Over, Power With, Power To/For, and Power Within:

  • Power Over fits how many of us think of power; built on force, coercion, domination and control, and motivating largely through fear. This form of power is built on a belief that power is a finite resource that can be held by individuals; that some people have power and some people do not. We have likely all experienced times when we exerted power over another person, and we have all experienced times when another exerted power over us, so it is no surprise that this is typically what we think of when we think of power.
  • Power With is shared power that grows out of collaboration and relationships. It is built on knowing and respecting differences and unique perspectives, mutual support, shared power, solidarity, influence, empowerment and collaborative decision making. Rather than exerting control, power with leads to the ability to act together through collective action.
  • Power To/For refers to “the new possibilities or actions that can be created without using relationships of domination,” and the combined vision, values and demands that orient your work together.
  • Power Within comes from self-awareness and the ability to know one’s own capacity, limits, and dreams/desires. Power within can help you ascertain when you are exerting power over or power with, and in doing so, it can be a key to healthy, productive working relationships.

How might these distinctions be useful as you work with others this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Pay attention to the decision points you face throughout your week – especially in your interactions with other people in your workplace and beyond; Where possible, move away from exerting “Power Over” and towards a leadership model of “Power With, Power To/For, and Power Within.” See what happens when you do – take time to reflect, and share with others what happened. If the idea of Power Within feels new, don’t worry – just start with identifying when you see moments of Power Over and Power With in the world around you, and that might help you to see it in your own life.

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear what you learn about yourself and others as you do.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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