These days, I’m troubled by the way power and influence is understood. Polls and recent election results from several countries suggest that many people are attracted to the idea of a “strong leader” – i.e., an authoritarian. In fact, there are many kinds of power – positional power, referent power (derived from one’s closeness to a source of power), relationship power, information power, moral authority. and many other names for the “ability to cause change,” as an old teacher of mine defined it. Personal power is based on a set of resources, tangible or intangible, that one controls, including personal properties such as beauty, intelligence, celebrity, and charisma. It is responded to or respected by those who need or want something from the person in power. It can be used for good or evil; to save or to destroy. Authoritarianism in families, governments, or organizations means a concentration of power in the hands of the few with the absence of individual freedom to make important choices.

Reading today’s headlines, one might think that power and influence derive only from being feared. And indeed, military and police power, authoritarian rule, and the ability to hire and fire, for example, have in common the resource of being able to hurt, punish, or extract concessions in exchange for compliance with the wishes of the person or group in authority. This kind of power, however, is not influential. Minds are not changed. Actions are often taken under duress, and the results are frequently of poor quality. People at the receiving end of authoritarian power do what they think they must do to avoid reprisal.

Influence is about putting power to work…

B. Kim Barnes (reprinted from “The Influence Guru”)

You’ve thought through how to approach your boss, your colleague, your partner. You have put together a solid and logical case that should meet their decision criteria. You have made an effort to understand their needs and believe you can show them that your idea will meet those needs beautifully. Somehow, though, your case falls flat. They give you a polite excuse, a rational-sounding rebuttal, an angry dismissal, or simply avoid responding at all. You’re puzzled and disappointed. It’s tempting to assume that they are simply resistant to change or to believe that they are being unreasonable. Of course, that often leads to a sense of futility, to giving up on that idea or that person’s potential support.

By B. Kim Barnes

Influencing another person requires that person to make a decision – whether to say yes, say no, discuss, negotiate, or offer an alternative that you both can live with. Decision-making related to influence is generally driven by needs, which can be practical or emotional in nature. Sometimes the need is obvious and discussable, such as a need for more time or resources. Sometimes the need is emotional and perhaps below awareness, but powerful all the same. While we may prefer to think of ourselves as rational and thoughtful decision-makers, recent studies by brain scientists and behavioral economists have shown that emotional needs are frequently the primary drivers behind our decisions.