• Sherry P. Johnson

Power IN Networks


Last week I shared about networks. I defined nodes and talked about connections, and about their "thickness" and "closeness.” But there's no point in talking about networks without talking about power.


Analyzing power is crucial when you want to change a system, and--despite some of our discomfort around it--power is not always bad. In fact, if you've been paying attention in this space for long enough, you know if you want to change a system, you gotta have power.

Power is not always about whether you can make somebody afraid of you. It’s also not always about how much formal authority that you have. It's just as much about persuasion; people have power over you if they can convince you of something… if you trust them... If you feel cared for... If people trust you and know that you care, that is power.


Another way you've likely heard this framed is differentiating between soft power and hard power. Hard power is that formal, coercive variety; this kind of power can easily be wielded poorly, by making people afraid. We usually follow people who have hard power out of a sense of compliance: we must comply, or we might be in trouble… we might be hurt or damaged… we might lose our jobs or our position… we might lose face or be embarrassed. But soft power emerges when people care about and trust one another. This kind of power is hard to misuse. When we think about power and networks, it's important to account for both of those kinds of power.


And here's the kicker: the more soft power exists in a system--the more care and trust you have in that system--the more information actually gets shared. Why? Because we don't tend to share information with people we don't trust. To have a functional organization--where complexity can be properly addressed in self-organizing, empowering ways--people must know what's going on. The broader and deeper their awareness, the more initiative people are likely to take, and in the right direction. The only way that happens is when people have a lot of mutual trust.


So, the next time you're working within a human network, observe the patterns. Watch where the information comes to a bottleneck. Notice where information tends to be shared freely. Think about who has the most information; usually that person may not have formal authority or hard power, though they may have a lot of authority through their soft power. These are the key network nodes, who are best positioned to reshape their system, through everyday interactions that diminish the need for compliance.

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