What is Power, Really?

According to the shortest dictionary definitions: “Power is the ability to make binding decisions.” There you have it, nothing more, nothing less.

And yet most people are taught, and everyone has heard the saying “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Right. So let’s get clear on this. There are different ways to wield power. And the “Power corrupts” adage really does appear to be a truism when people talk about authoritarian notions of “power over,” which is how tons of people think about power in general. This view has been furthered by important power theorists like Foucault who saw power as “inherently coercive”. And to be fair: in any nation state born of inequity and rife with social hierarchies, where some lives are valued more than others, power can’t help but usually be wielded in coercive ways.

But it really is NOT the entire universe of what power is.

Decision making can take a bunch of different forms.

If we take the dictionary definition at face value (and we should), then power boils down to “decision making ability”. And anyone who has ever had a moment’s worth of happiness in any relationship to any human (or animal companion for that matter), will note that making decisions in cooperative ways is usually (by far) the best choice, for a variety of reasons.

And something we already know intuitively, but still seems surprising: decision making that is done cooperatively does not seem to corrupt. This kind of truly shared decision making (aka shared power or sometimes called “power with”) is done -routinely and intentionally- in healthy egalitarian partnerships and friendships, and in well functioning teams.

In fact, I’d argue that people will choose to cooperatively make decisions by default. Think about the parts of life you enjoy most- how do you decide what to do with others you like to be around? Collaborative decision making is the default mode for how our most enjoyable times are spent. When we make dinner plans, or meet up for some recreational thing, or decide to rent a beach house with people we like, we are most definitely “making binding decisions” about where to spend time together, but because it’s not imposed upon us, we don’t see it as a burden like we might see some arbitrary work deadline.

Speaking of, this also extends to -satisfying- work. Well functioning groups and teams learn to share decision making (aka power) almost effortlessly as they proceed on their projects. People in well functioning groups freely “give” power to people in other areas of a project based on their differing skills and expertise. Note the phrasing. In well functioning groups, electrical engineers will never end up trying to tell landscape designers which plants to buy for the site.

Having autonomy in one’s area of expertise is a basic key to being satisfied with work, and it’s should come as no surprise that workers become bitter and disengaged with their work when they don’t have any say in how to do it, or when their skills and expertise are not recognized.

In any complex project or environment, including governing, it -does- take more work to ensure everyone’s needs and preferences are taken into consideration, because there will be competing interests and priorities. This will almost inevitably slow down how things get done.

And if “time is money”, or others are getting competitive about wanting power OVER ( having more decision making abilities than others), the ways decisions get made can become “top down” (meaning decisions are made by others).

What’s Wrong With Believing Power Corrupts?

In other words: Why try to re-imagine the idea of “power” as a good thing?

Some main reasons:

  1. Because making decisions (wielding power) is unavoidable. Humans will always have to have ways to make decisions about all kinds of things.
  2. Because the authoritarian ways of making decisions, with someone or some group just deciding they are in charge virtually always end up being coercive, and often fully abusive/oppressive. And newsflash: no one except the stunted bullies on or near the tops of these artificial hierarchies like it when authoritarians rule in authoritarian ways.
  3. Beyond that, I would argue that the very idea of a democracy (the idea, not how they are currently manifested) is about explicitly trying to make decision making proportional, so that every person gets a say. This very idea of voting, is about shared power and decision making
  4. Because the science around collective intelligence in groups shows that without a doubt, decision making done in cooperative ways produces simply–better– decisions because it takes everyone’s needs, wants, expertise and points of view into consideration. The science is quite clear about this. See work done by Anita Woolley or Thomas Malone on this topic, for starters.
  5. Because when all people’s needs and desires are taken into considerations, neglect or abuse of marginalized people becomes less likely. Imposing decisions onto people that harm them is abusive. Full stop.