Wherever people come together, power emerges, and Will to Power. Is this primarily a matter of actual might or a mere sense of feeling mighty?
An economic study by L. P. Tost (2015), published in Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 35, pp. 29-56), tackled the question of how structural and psychological power are related.
Tost defines power as the “asymmetric control over valued resources, which in turn affords an individual the ability to control other’s outcomes, experiences, or behaviors” (2015, p. 30).
The three types of power are:
- structural power = power based on social organization
- psychological power = the conscious sense or feeling of structural power
- cognitive power = a network of unconscious associations between power and leadership behaviors
Valued resources may be money, food, economic opportunity, professional security, information, expertise, or social approval. Someone with a lot of money or approval is more powerful in these regards than someone who has less money or approval. Similarly, an employer has more power than his employees because he has more economic and decision-making opportunities. Also, he can fire them while they can’t fire him (= professional security). That’s why the control over resources is asymmetric.
Feelings of power depend on how legitimate, independent and confident one feels with respect to one’s position of power. These feelings may be episodic (“I feel powerful right now!”) or chronic (“I’m a powerful man!”).
The structural position of power need not be the rank in, say, a company hierarchy. It can also rest on how many influential groups one’s a member of or to the strength of one’s social network. The latter particularly applies to celebrities: the more famous a person is in society, the greater her influence and the more powerful her structural position.
Cognitive power is strongly influenced by learned stereotypes and relates to signs of leadership qualities. Whoever acts confident, decisive, assertive, proactive, efficient, determined, and independent will be perceived as powerful. If you carry yourself in such a manner, you’ll unconsciously elevate your cognitive power. Power posing demonstrates this vividly: Adopt the proud, expansive body posture of an alpha male and your cognitive power will rise. Status symbols such as expensive suits or a luxury car can likewise impact cognitive power (and often psychological power too).
Now, how are these three types of power related to each other? At first glance it seems obvious: Structural power positively affects feelings of power, which promote leadership behaviors that increase cognitive power. The reality, however, is a bit more complex. For cognitive power can rise without a conscious sense of power, and structurally powerless people may under certain circumstances feel powerful nonetheless (for example, as a result of adopting power postures as mentioned earlier or when they continuously tell themselves that they’re “boss”, “powerful”, “alpha”, etc.).
Tost distinguishes between agentic behaviors and communal behaviors. Agentic behaviors relate to self-assertion, goal pursuit, proactivity and independence whereas communal behaviors highlight open-mindedness, prosocial behavior, and emotional intelligence. Tost shows that the usual associations between power and agentic behaviors in contrast to communal behaviors was rendered obsolete by modern economic studies. Structural power positively influences both types of behavior. Accordingly, Tost makes the case for two causal relationships:
- Structural power leads to psychological power that drives agentic behaviors by means of cognitive power.
- Structural power and psychological power lead to a sense of responsibility that modulates cognitive power and drives communal behaviors.
I won’t discuss the rationale behind these relations (just read Tost’s paper; keep in mind though that a “fake it till you make it” attitude may conversely enable cognitive power to alter structural power). What’s more important to me is the role of responsibility. A healthy sense of responsibility can control the impact of cognitive power such that communal qualities like social skills don’t get left behind culturally acquired associations of power like war, greed, money and oppression.
How important it is not only to accept responsibility but to embody it radically and without limitations is emphatically demonstrated in the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink, a former Navy Seals officer. Jocko’s military examples translate perfectly into the business world, and he exactly shows how.
If you want a practical guideline to develop structural power based on concrete principles I further recommend The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.