Conversations for Change: Harnessing Power for Positive Impact with Dr. Julie Battilana

In this live talk, Julie Battilana, the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and the Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses the fundamentals of power, debunks the common myths surrounding it, and discusses how to harness power for positive impact in our lives and in the world. As the Founder and Faculty Chair of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative at HKS, Professor Battilana has taught and worked closely with hundreds of leaders in social innovation over the years. Building on this work and nearly two decades of researching the politics of change in organizations and society, she will share her insights into what power really is and what it is not, as well as how to identify one’s own sources of power. This discussion will help the audience understand and navigate power in their relationships, organizations, and society and see power not as dirty business, but instead energy that can be used for good.

Originally aired on May 16, 2022


TERRY HOGAN: Hello, and welcome to the 2022 NCWIT Summit on Women and IT, which continues to be the world’s largest annual convening of change leaders focused on significantly improving diversity and equity in computing. My name is Terry Hogan, and I’m the president and CTO at NCWIT. This session kicks off our 2022 conference series. Thank you for joining us! 

First off, we would like to thank the sponsors that make this event possible. NCWIT couldn’t do the work we do without their generosity. 

And thank you, in advance, for your patience, should we experience any bandwidth or other technical issues. Also, I encourage you to post your questions or comments on the Q&A board throughout the session, or to upvote questions you’d like to have answered. We’ll answer as many as possible at the end of the session. 

Before we begin, a quick welcome from one of our summit sponsors: Royal Bank of Canada Capital Markets. Karina Sidhu is the Managing Director and Global Head of Technology within the Quantitative and Technology Services Division. Karina, please take a minute to share a few words. 

KARINA SIDHU: Absolutely. Thank you, Lauren. I just want to make sure everybody can see and hear me? 

TERRY: We are looking at your computer screen, Karina, but we can hear you. 

KARINA: Okay. Let me change that. 

TERRY: There we go.

KARINA: Okay. 

TERRY: Perfect.

KARINA: Can you see me now? 

TERRY: Yes. 

KARINA: Okay. Excellent. Hi, everyone! Unfortunately, I cannot see what you’re seeing. Hopefully, you can see my face.

It’s my absolute pleasure to be here to represent RBC Capital Markets. I know our journey with NCWIT has been going on for some time, but this year we really leaned in, and we want to really come together to focus on the same initiative that NCWIT stands for: which is, better representing our teams with diversity and inclusion. Especially, the focus on how do we attract more women to computing, quantitative, and technology teams at our bank – especially within Capital Markets? It’s a time when leaders are, more than ever, committed to this. So, I am just really excited about the learnings that we’ll get from the next few days; what we are going to hear from some of the speakers. How can we actually all leverage data and more data-driven insights to better help our teams, and our leaders, both attract more women and also retain the diversity that we do attract on our teams?

With that, I just want to thank Terry, and Lauren, and everybody here for all their hard work, for inviting us, for putting on this great event. I’d love to chat with any of you off-line, perhaps discuss some ideas. If there’s any questions I can help answer, or problems we can come together to solve, I’d love to hear from you all.

Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure, and I really look forward to more conversations on this. Back to you, Terry. 

TERRY: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Karina. 

Now, the first session of the 2022 Virtual NCWIT Summit. Today, we are talking about power: a topic that often flies under the radar. We know it exists. We know it’s important, and we know it significantly affects diversity, equity, and inclusion dynamics – especially as relates to race, gender, and other intersecting social identities. 

But, we don’t often talk about power explicitly.  Today, however, we are going to do exactly that. This conversation is particularly important because we know that it’s not enough to just increase diverse representation in tech. We also need to look at power and influence if we are to make sure that a diverse range of people are able to meaningfully contribute to technical innovation. So, we are very excited to have our first speaker here to kick off this important conversation. 

With that, I would like to welcome Dr.  Julie Battilana, who is a professor of Organizational Behavior and Social Innovation at the Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Kennedy School, where she’s also the founder and faculty chair of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative. Her research examines the politics of change in organizations and in society from two different but related angles. The first focuses on understanding the conditions that enable individuals to initiate and implement divergent change in their organizations. The second examines how organizations themselves can diverge from deeply seated organizational norms and bring about systemic change. She is the author of myriad articles and two books on these topics, the “Working Manifesto” and “Power, for All: How It Really Works, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business.” We are thrilled to have her here to share her insights with us. 

Welcome, Julie. 

DR. JULIE BATTILANA: Thank you so much, Terry. It’s a pleasure and an honor for me to be with you today, and have the opportunity to spend this time with you. 

Let me share my slide. Hopefully, you will be able to see them, and then we can take it from there and move forward. 

Okay. I obviously want to tell you more about what I hope we can do together today, but before I do so, I have to share with you some good news and some bad news. I am actually going to start with the bad news. The bad news is that, although some of you may now be secretly hoping that this French accent of mine is going to somehow miraculously disappear, or at least weaken over the course of the next few minutes or so, I have to report that I’m afraid it is here to stay. I moved to the U.S. more than 15 years ago, back when I joined the faculty at Harvard University, and here we are: stuck with the same accent. 

The good news, and that’s what I’d like to turn to now, is that today we are going to talk about power and the politics of change. I spent the past 20 years conducting research, teaching, and advising people on precisely that topic; helping them understand power and understand the politics of change in organizations and in society. 

On this journey as I was doing that work, what I have observed is that people want to have impact. They want to have impact in their organizations. They want to have impact in their communities. But, what I have also observed is that they often only have limited impact. Why? Because they do not understand power.

Indeed, Terry, you are right. Power is everywhere. It fascinates us. We talk about it, but we do not understand it well enough. So, what I’d like for us to do today is to talk about power. Get to talk about what power really is, and how it truly works, and debunk some of the fallacies that we have in mind about power. 

I would argue that it is absolutely critical that we do that today. Why? Because we are in the midst of a truly multidimensional crisis, and that multidimensional crisis requires for us to effect change. If we want to implement any kind of change in our organizations, in our economic system, or more broadly in society, we need to understand power.

Now, why am I saying we are in the midst of a multidimensional crisis? I think it’s clear to all of us. Over the past few years, we have obviously been experiencing a terrible and tragic health crisis relative to the pandemic, but this has not been the only crisis we have been experiencing. We have also been experiencing a social and economic crisis characterized by rising inequalities, with these inequalities affecting some parts of the population more than others. 

We have also been experiencing an environmental crisis now, and for some time. That has reached a truly acute phase. In fact, if we all go back to the most recent report published by the IPCC, it is pretty clear that the decade ahead of us will be the critical one for the future of the planet and for the future of all the species on this planet, including ours. 

Simultaneously, we have also been experiencing a political crisis that is still ongoing. This is the 16th year in a row that democracy has been declining across the globe. It is estimated that only 20% of the world population lives in fully free countries. Now, we have been getting a lot of reminders of how fragile democracy is. In fact, think about what happened in the United States on January 6 of last year. The attack on the Capitol was a very serious reminder of how fragile democracy is. If we think about the situation in Europe at the moment with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are getting tragic daily reminders of the fact that democracy is under attack. 

Why is it that I wanted to talk about this multidimensional crisis as we get started on our journey to discuss power? Again, I’m sure I’m not sharing anything new to you. You are deeply aware of the multidimensional crisis. If we want to reduce inequalities – and I know you care deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion; and if we want to enhance democracy – which I know you care about as citizens; and if we want to protect our planet, not only for us but for the future generations; then, we need to transform our social, economic, and political systems, and we need to transform our organizations accordingly.

The thing is that there is a critical ingredient that we need to make any kind of change happen. What is it? It is power. 

What is power? Power is the ability to influence other people’s behavior. That is why I’m saying it is a necessary ingredient to make any kind of change happen. Now, this is the definition of power, though. That’s not an explanation. 

The next question becomes: Where does power come from? This is a question I have asked many, many, many people; thousands of people over the past 20 years. People from all walks of life: some of them highly educated, others who never had the opportunity to go to school but had this amazing impact in their communities. I have asked this question to my students. I have asked this question to older people. Again, a variety of people across the globe. 

I have to tell you, I have actually come to worry about the answers I have been getting to that question. Why? Because I have come to realize that many of us tend to have deep misconceptions in mind about power that prevent us from understanding power for what it is. 

There are three main misconceptions that I’d like to share with you now that I have identified as being very widespread. 

The first misconception about power is this idea that somehow power would be a possession. People would come to me, and what they would ask me very often, you’d be surprised. If you could spend a day with me, you’d see that’s a question I get very often. They would say something like, “Well Julie, you study power and the politics of change. You have been teaching about it. You just wrote a book about it. Can you please give us the list?” I was initially puzzled. What is the list that people want? Then, I got to understand that people want the list of personality – personal characteristics, more broadly – that make people more powerful. They are somehow convinced that it’s about identifying these personal characteristics, and you either have them or you don’t. If you have them somehow, you will be powerful in every situation. Some people think it is about charisma. Other people think it is about good looks, but they want the list. Right?

The second misconception about power is this idea that somehow power will be only for the people at the top. It will be only for the CEOs, the top executives, the generals, the prime ministers, the president, and so on.

Then, the third misconception about power – that is probably the most widespread – is the idea that power is dirty. Now, if you put all three misconceptions together, you start getting a flavor for what I hear all the time. People will come to me, and they would say, “you know, Julie, I don’t think I have the personal characteristics, and anyway, I’m not one of the people at the top. But you know what? Good for me, because at least I’m not getting my hands dirty!”

Now, as I told you, I have come to worry a lot about these misconceptions. Why? Because they have very serious implications for all of us, individually and collectively. 

Now individually, if we do not understand power, then we can only have limited impact, as I already mentioned. When people can only have limited impact, what I see from my research and my advising, is that people get frustrated. That’s when they tend to turn their back away from power, and they leave it to others to decide for them. 

That’s when we collectively, altogether, can get into trouble. Because if we do not understand power, then how can we possibly get organized to identify, to prevent, and to stop power abuses when they emerge? These power abuses can obviously threaten our freedoms and well-being. 

Now, this is really worrisome, but there is good news. Why am I saying so? I’m saying so because what I’ve seen through my research, and through my teaching and advising, is that when people understand power dynamics, they become more effective leaders and more effective changemakers. What I also know from my teaching, my experience, and my research is that power dynamics can be learned. 

This is why, together with my dear friend and co-author Tiziana Casciaro, we actually spent the past few years writing this book, “Power, for All.” The mission of the book is to democratize access to knowledge about power. Machiavelli wrote his very well-known essay about power, “the Prince,” more than 500 years ago. Not for a prince, we truly wrote that book for all, including those who have been excluded from power for a long time. 

So now, this is taking me back to the question I was asking you earlier: Where does power come from? If you want to answer this question, you have to understand what we refer to in the first chapter of the book as the fundamentals of power.

I am about to make a big statement. I will tell you that the fundamentals of power were the same thousands of years ago when human beings were getting organized to live together on this planet, and that they will remain the same for as long as there will be human beings on the planet – assuming we get our act together, and we save our planet. So what are the fundamentals of power? Here we go. 

Power resides in control over access to valued resources. Bear with me. This is simple yet critically important. What does it mean? It means that I have power over you if I control access to resources that you need and want. In the meantime, you have power over me if you control access to resources that I need and want. 

Let me give you a simple example. It could be that you happen to control access to a technology that I absolutely need to be able to complete the project that I am working on. So, you certainly have some power over me. Now in the meantime, it could be that I am connected to an expert in a specific domain with whom you absolutely need to connect to be able to complete your project. If I happen to be the only person, or one of very few people you know connected to that person, then I also have some power over you. 

So, what is it that you get to understand once you understand that power resides in control over access to valued resources? You get to understand that power is always relational. I may have a great deal of power over you today in our relationship, but it doesn’t mean that I have a great deal of power in other relationships. Importantly, you also get to understand the power within the relationships also always fluctuates. It could be that I do not have much power today in our relationship, but it doesn’t mean that it has to remain the same for the rest of eternity.

In fact, what I’d like to do now is illustrate this key principle, the fundamentals of power, with an example. I would like you to meet Nezuma Mjumbe. I have to tell you that in the process of writing this book, Tiziana and I relied on our own research. We also relied on research across fields of social sciences on power, and we didn’t stop there. We also interviewed more than 100 people across the world with very, very different paths to and through power. We are using some of their stories in the book to actually illustrate what we have learned from research, and Nezuma is one of the people we interviewed. We shared her story in Chapter 7 of the book; that really concentrates on power in tech.

I vividly remember the first time I actually met Nezuma and interviewed Nezuma. Nezuma lives in Tanzania in a remote rural community, and I asked her about her life. She said to me that growing up, as she was a little girl, her dream was to become a teacher. She also explained that she never had the opportunity to go to school.  

Then, I asked her questions about her power. When I asked her the first question about her power, she paused and she looked at me, and she said, “You know, Julie, for the longest time in my life, I’ve felt pretty powerless.” Then, she went on, and she said, “You know, I think I’m actually quite objective. Because for the longest time, I was not one of the members of the powerful village council, and the members of the village councils are the ones who decide everything.” She added that, to her recollection, no woman had been a member of that village council. 

In 2016, though, Nezuma’s life changed radically. She went from feeling, and as she said quite objectively being, quite powerless, to becoming one of the most powerful members of her community. How did that happen? It happened actually because in 2016, Nezuma crossed paths with an international NGO called Barefoot College. 

Some of you may be familiar with Barefoot College. Actually, Barefoot College intervention is all about technology and women’s empowerment. So, Barefoot College has developed a truly innovative program that enables women across the global South to become solar engineers through learning by doing and peer-to-peer learning, even when they are illiterate. 

So, representatives of Barefoot College visited Nezuma’s village. They explained that they were looking for a volunteer who would come study with them for five months. They’d have to move to a city nearby, and after those five months, that person graduated from the program. That person would be given all the necessary materials to electrify the community. 

At that point, the members of the village council, who knew how much people needed reliable access to electricity, encouraged the members of the community to raise their hands. That’s when men raised their hands. That’s when the representatives of Barefoot College explained it would have to be a woman, and at that point, Nezuma raised her hand. 

Initially, her husband didn’t want to let her go, and study, and be away for five months, but the representatives of Barefoot College worked together with the members of the village council to convince him to let her go. Nezuma went to the city. She studied for five months, and then she came back, and she electrified the community with the help of her husband, in fact.  

When she electrified the community, she didn’t only literally bring power to the community. In doing that, she became one of the most powerful members of the community. Why? Because she now controlled access to one of the most valued resources that everyone needed in the community; namely, electricity. 

So, this is enabling me to go back to the fundamentals of power. We just saw an illustration of the fundamentals of power in action, but what I want to spend some time talking about is what I mean by resources. Remember, power resides in control over access to valued resources. 

When I shared that with you, you probably went to, “yes, valued resources; money, material possessions,” and you are right. These are certainly valued resources, but these are not the only resources that we human beings value. In the case of Nezuma, it was access to electricity. We also value a set of psychological resources, such as achievements, status, autonomy, affiliation, morality. We talk about that in detail in Chapter 3 of the book. 

Think about some of the iconic changemakers that have pushed for a change and had impact. Think about Gandhi. Think about Martin Luther King. Think about Nelson Mandela. More recently, think about Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg. Right? What do they have in common? They have been standing for moral values that some of us want to be associated with, and that has given them the power to mobilize people and push for change. Again, the resources, yes, may be money, or may be material possessions, or electricity, but they may also be psychological resources. 

So, what is it that we can do once we now understand the fundamentals of power? We can officially debunk the fallacies about power. As I am saying that, I have to pause and tell you it could be that some of you are not dealing with any of these fallacies anymore. Or, that you have already debunked them – but I know you are working with people who still have these fallacies in mind, and it’s particularly important that you help them debunk the fallacies so they can become more effective leaders and more effective changemakers.

Let’s concentrate on the first fallacy; the idea that somehow power will be a possession. Once you understand the fundamentals of power, you get to understand that well, no, power is never a possession. Power is, instead, always relative. 

Think about Nezuma. Nezuma didn’t have much power. She learned a new skill. She became a solar engineer. That gave her a great deal of power in her community certainly, but if she had been living in the large urban area that was already completely electrified, becoming a solar engineer would not have given her much power. So, power is not a possession. It’s always relative. 

We can also debunk the second fallacy about power, this idea that somehow, power will be only for the people at the top. Well, think about it. When Nezuma came back, she was not a member of the village council. She didn’t have that authority. She was not one of the people at the top, and yet, she had a great deal of power because she controlled access to electricity. Later on, she became so powerful that she was asked to join the village council, and gained that authority, and was very proud to be representing women on that council now. 

Now, you are getting the French accent. I guess I have to take you to France at least once in the conversation we are having together today. That’s what I’m going to be doing now. I want to further illustrate this critical point, the difference between power and authority, with another story we share in the book. That’s the story that’s taking us to France.  

So in the late 1950s, a group of French researchers wanted to understand the factors influencing the productivity of workers on the floor of factories. What is it that they decided to do? They decided to do what we researchers do in those situations: They contacted an organization. They contacted a company called La SEITA that, at the time, produced cigarettes, and they asked whether they could come and observe what was happening on the floor of the factory. The leadership of the company accepted.

On the D-Day, the first day of observation, the researchers arrived and they met with the top leadership of the company. The researchers asked for the organizational charts of that organization, they got the organizational chart, and then, they went to the floor of the factory and they observed what was happening. During a few days of observations, the researchers asked to meet with the leadership of the company again. Here is what they told the leadership. They said, “You probably made a mistake. It looks like you didn’t give us the right organizational chart.”

At that point, the top management of the company, these people were quite annoyed. They just had to explain, “Listen, we don’t have multiple organizational charts. We only have one, and we gave it to you. So, you have the right organizational chart.” 

But it didn’t make any sense to the researchers. Why? Because according to the organizational chart, the workers were reporting to middle managers, who were reporting to top managers. Right? You had workers; foreman, middle managers, top managers, according to the organizational chart. Yet, any time a top manager or a middle manager, or even a foreman, would come to the floor of the factory and ask the workers to do something, the workers didn’t seem to care. But when maintenance workers in charge of repairing machines came to the floor of the factory and asked workers to do something, the workers were not excited – they were frustrated – but they immediately complied. The thing that this meant was that those workers were as low in the hierarchy as the workers themselves. So, the most powerful people seemed to be the lowest in the organizational hierarchy. 

The researchers were puzzled, but then they went back to the floor of the factory, they further observed, and then, they understood. They understood that workers were paid depending on the number of units they produced each day. They also observed that machines on the floor of that factory had a bad tendency to break. Now what does it mean? It means the maintenance workers are actually controlling access to the most valued resource in this organization; a machine that works. That gave them a great deal of power, and they were very, very aware of it. 

In fact, the approach they had was not an ethical one. They made sure not to share information about how to fix machines with anyone, and they refused to come up with a manual or write down instructions. They just wanted, at that time, to keep the power they had, and they were aware of why they had the power that they had. 

Why is it that I wanted to share this example with you? Because it really highlights a critical point, which is that power and authority are not the same. This is a confusion I see all the time when I work with people across sectors, including in the tech sector, where people are confusing power and authority. Authority is a formal right to give orders and commands. Yes, it can be used for some power, but it is never a guarantee of power. Importantly, what the La SEITA example shows that you do not need authority to have power. Right? The maintenance workers were low in the hierarchy, and yet, they were the most powerful people. 

In fact, in our research with Tiziana, my dear friend and co-author, one question we’ve asked across industries, and across different kinds of companies and organizations, is: Who are the most effective changemakers? What is it that we found? Well, what we found is the most effective changemakers are not necessarily the people at the top. Far from it. The most effective changemakers tend to be the people who are central in the network of their organization, in the networks of the society they are trying to change. 

Who are these central players? They are the people to whom others go to for advice. These people have more power than others. They are more effective changemakers. Why? Because they are the people others trust. Trust is a huge component of influence. 

That’s why I am saying that power is not only for those at the top. It is potentially for all, but we also need to spend a bit of time debunking the final fallacy. I told you that it’s probably the most widespread; this idea that power is dirty. 

Well, if you think about it, power itself is not dirty. Right? The dirtiness, if anywhere, is not in power; it’s in us. It’s up to us to decide what we are ready to do to gain power. It’s up to us to decide what we are going to use the power that we have for. So, power itself is not dirty. Power is the energy you need to get anything done.

That being said, let’s not be naive. We explained in the book, and we talk about it extensively in Chapter 2, that power can be dirty, but it does not have to be. Why am I saying that it can be dirty? Well, we all know why. We know it from our experiences. We know it from history, and we know it from the very rich body of research in social psychology on power. Power tends to poison us, and it is true for all of us. No one is immune to the dangers of power poison. 

When we are in positions of power for some time, power tends to have two very insidious effects on human psychology. What are those two effects? First again, when we are in these positions of power for some time, we start thinking that we deserve to be there; that we are better than others. We start becoming more overconfident. Some of us develop a sense of invincibility. This is a very well-documented trap of hubris. The second insidious effect of power on human psychology relates to the fact that when we are in positions of power for some time, it becomes harder for us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people. We start seeing the world through our own lens, and we start thinking that it’s actually better than the others’, right? Those are the power poisons. Again, no one is immune to the power poisons.

But if those are the power poisons, what Tiziana and I have seen through our research is that there are power antidotes. We are relying there on our research and other people’s research across the field of social sciences. What is the antidote to hubris? Well, if you want to counter hubris, then you have to cultivate humility. That’s going to require an awareness of our impermanence. If you want to counter the trap of acting self-centered and self-focused, then you need to cultivate empathy. That’s going to require an awareness of interdependence. What we see is that when people cultivate humility and empathy for themselves, and then on their teams, and as part of the cultures of their organization, then that is when they are able to see power as a responsibility. That is when they can have a truly collective orientation and, together, pursue a higher purpose. 

If I stop there though, you would be telling me that I’m incredibly naive, and you would absolutely be right. I cannot stop there. Because I may be thinking, “I’m so humble and empathetic,” but it could be that I am absolutely not humble and empathetic. We are not good judges of how well we are doing on those dimensions. So, that is why I am saying we cannot stop there. 

I’d like to illustrate this point with another story we share in the book. It’s the story of Vera Cordeiro. Some of you may know Vera. Vera is a social entrepreneur in Brazil. She’s a doctor by background, and she’s a pediatrician. Very early on in her professional life, she was heartbroken when she worked as a pediatrician in one of the largest hospitals in Rio de Janeiro. She was heartbroken to see kids coming from the poorest communities in Rio who would come to the hospital too late, or who kept coming back because their parents could not afford the medication. 

So, what did she do? She dedicated her whole life to helping these kids, but she understood that to help them, she couldn’t just concentrate on their health. She had to help their whole families with healthcare issues, housing issues, citizenship issues, employment issues, and so on. She designed a truly multidimensional intervention and created the social enterprise institute, Dara, to help implement these services at scale. Instituto Dara has had an amazing impact in Brazil and beyond. They’ve been helping more than one million people across the world get out of extreme poverty in sustainable ways. 

Initially, when I talked to Vera, she said that she was one of these people who didn’t want to have anything to do with power because she felt it was dirty. Then, she got to understand she needed power to help save the kids. So, she made peace with it. She engaged with it. She built the power she needed to do the fundraising, to scale the organization, to help the kids, to attract all the expert professionals and volunteers she needed. 

She thought she was doing great, and she was. She was doing great, and she got recognized. She won many awards. She then became, also, a frequent speaker at organizations and conferences, like Davos. That’s when her staff and her family confronted her, and here is what they said to her. 

“Vera, what is wrong with you? You keep interrupting people. You seem obsessed with attending gala dinners and award ceremonies. Have you forgotten about the kids?”

What Vera shared with me when I interviewed her, and I’m using her own language – she said, “Julie, I have been on an ego trip, and I was not aware of it.” Vera is the embodiment of empathy and humility, and yet, as she said, she had been on an ego trip and she had not been aware of it. 

So, what did she do after they confronted her? Well, she certainly doubled down on humility and empathy, which is absolutely critical. For her, it was through meditation. For some of us, it could be through very different kinds of channels. But, and this is the key thing I want to emphasize now, she didn’t stop there. She also revisited the processes and systems at Instituto Dara to make sure that the structures of power sharing and accountability were in place. 

Let me be very clear in terms of what I mean here. One example: she decided to change the design flow structure of the weekly meetings. Instead of being the first one to talk and the one who would be asking questions to whoever she wanted to ask questions, it was decided that she would be the last one to talk in those meetings, that they would retain the order of who would be speaking, and that everyone would have the same amount of time to talk. Whenever she interrupted people, she was actually asked, “Just shut up and listen.” Then, her time came at the end, to actually react to what others had been saying. 

Now, where are we? Well, it means that again, power can be dirty. Absolutely. Let’s not be naive. But if you cultivate humility and empathy, and if you welcome, embrace, and strengthen the structures of power-sharing and accountability on your team, and in your organization, and if we do that collectively and more broadly in our democracies, then we can engage with power more cleanly. It doesn’t have to be dirty. 

Where are we now? Let’s just take a step together. We have officially debunked the fallacies about power, and I hope that that content will help you and help you help others debunk them. So now, what can we do? Well, we can really now understand power for what it is, and we understand how it works. That’s about the fundamentals of power. Seeing that, now you can also map the political landscape in any situation. You can understand who has more versus less power. 

What does it take for you to do that? You just need to answer two key questions. What do people value, and who controls access to the valued resources? Don’t look at the organizational chart. Only you need to address two questions if you want to understand who has power and who doesn’t, who has more versus less power in those situations. Then importantly, you can also now, in context, better assess your own sources of power. To what extent do you have access to resources that others need and want? 

That being said, one question remains, and I am sure it’s on your mind. If power is not a possession, and if it is not only for those at the top, then why does it steadily accrue to some groups while continually eluding others? This is a critically important question, indeed.  

Well, the reality is that this is because power is sticky. Relationships, as we know, do not happen in a vacuum. Instead, they happen within existing organizational contexts, societal contexts, and societies and organizations are shaped by power hierarchies. Those power hierarchies are accepted orders of who commands more versus less power in a given society, or a given organization. 

We are all aware of utterly unjust power hierarchies that have been prevalent for a long time and that still shape our organizations and societies. Think about sexism. Think about racism, among others.

Why is it that power is so sticky even when the power hierarchies are utterly unjust  and a number of us actually reject them? The reality is that once power is distributed in a certain way, over time the resulting hierarchy acquires a patina of legitimacy through the stories we tell from one generation to another; through the way these stories end up shaping the legal systems that we create. 

Now, what I want to insist on as I get ready to conclude, though, is that sticky is not the same as stuck. This is where we have to think about the power of collective action. You, individually, may not have all the sources of power to tackle the issues that we discussed at the beginning relative to the multidimensional crisis we are facing. You may not have all the sources of power that you need to change your own organizations, right? But by joining forces with others, we can significantly expand the pools of resources that we have access to. This is precisely the power of collective action in organizations and in society. 

Again, I am not being naive here. There continue to be massive power imbalances. This is where we started. This is very true. But history shows that what we human beings created, we can, together, change. 

What I’d like to draw your attention to, though, is that, yes, it is critically important to agitate for change to happen. Protests can be very effective, and they play an important role, but agitation alone is not enough to change the status quo. We must also innovate and orchestrate. Let me give you an example of what I mean here. 

I’d like you to go back to the Occupy Wall Street movement. What a great deal of agitation! And if you ask me, a highly-needed agitation at the time. Yet somehow, the movement died. Right? Things didn’t really change following this huge financial crisis and the global one. Now, think about it. There was a great deal of agitation, but at the time, the people involved in the movement didn’t have a set of innovations that they could present as alternatives to the status quo. What I see in my work on change and social change, and this is true for organizations and in society, is that for change to happen, you need to agitate, innovate, and orchestrate, and we all have a role to play. 

Agitators are those who speak out against the status quo. They raise public awareness of the problems. Think about the young people involved in Fridays for Future today. That’s one example of contemporary agitation, but again, that’s not enough. We also need the innovators. 

The innovators are the ones who develop actionable solutions to address the grievances identified by the agitators. The innovators, they can be social innovators. A lot of the social innovators I work with today actually leverage all of the amazing new technologies available to us to try and help solve the problems. They have a deep understanding that the problems we are trying to solve are not only technical ones; they are also political ones. So, they understand power and understand the impact that technology can have if we know how to navigate the politics of change. Another example of innovators would be policymakers; legislators coming up with new pieces of legislation. 

But again, agitating and innovating is not enough. We also need the orchestrators. Why am I saying that? Because agitation without innovation is a state of complaint without a way forward, and then, innovation without orchestration is a set of potentially great ideas but without impact. The orchestrators are the ones who enable the coordination of all parties involved to put in place the changes at scale and to help create the new normal.

Again, we all have a role to play as agitators, innovators, or orchestrators. We need to think about what we are best equipped to do so that we can help create more value. By value, I do not only mean financial value, but also social and environmental value for our organizations, and for society in general.

I hope you now understand why we decided to entitle that book “Power for All.” This is because Tiziana and I believe that power can and must be for all. Everybody can grasp the inner workings of power it takes to understand the fundamentals of power. Remember, power resides in control over access to valued resources. The other critical point is that once you understand the fundamentals of power, then everybody can gain a measure of power. 

Obviously, we, again, shouldn’t be naive. We are facing deeply entrenched power hierarchies that enable some of us with easier access to resources and constrain some of us with much more limited access to resources. So again, we are not all equal there. It’s easier for some to gain a measure of power and much more complicated for others, but again, if we join forces with others, there’s a lot we can do to try and change and disrupt existing, unjust power hierarchies.

Last but not least, we must understand, build, and use our power – individually and collectively as citizens – if we want to protect and enhance our democracies. That’s what I wanted to share with you today. You know, if you are interested in reading more about that, you should obviously go to the book. You will have all the detailed stories, explanations, and results of research on power. We also created a website that now has a test that you can take online. That will enable you to think more about your needs and wants, and the implications in terms of the relationships you have and the power balance in all of those various relationships. 

Then, I am excited to announce that we are launching, on Wednesday this week in fact, a course that I have developed over the past few years with Harvard Business Online, entitled “Power and Influence for Positive Impact.” I’m also glad to announce we’ve created a special scholarship for this course with the Social Innovation and Change Initiative in partnership with HBS Online to enable social change makers who cannot afford the course but would like to be able to take it. 

That is everything I wanted to share with you today. Thank you so much for your attention, and I look forward to your questions.    

TERRY: Wonderful. Thank you, Julie. We so appreciate your talk. We do have a few questions from our audience. The first question I have here is: Can you please address the relationship  between power and fear?  

JULIE: Yeah. A very good question, indeed. So you know, as I said, power is about control over access to valued resources. What we discussed in the book is that, and that is in the third chapter of the book. 

We human beings have different needs and wants. Now that being said, we have learned a lot over the past few centuries now about human needs and wants. There are two universal needs that we have in common: a need for safety, and a need for self-esteem. 

If you think about that, you will be thinking, “Okay, then you know there is one way to actually control resources and exercise power, which is to use fear.” 

What if, Terry, I can actually threaten your access to the resources that you and your family need to ensure your survival? Then certainly, I am going to gain a great deal of power over you by using fear. This is the playbook of dictators, right? This is what they have been doing, if we look in the past. This is what they are still doing today. 

A less extreme example would be, say, in a work context. I have talked to so many people who come to me because they had to deal with abusive bosses who were threatening them  and using the constant threat to force them to do things. So yes, using fear as a source of power is something that has been done, is still done, and sadly a number of people continue to do, but it is not the only way through which you can actually influence people. You can actually also, instead of using this kind of coercive approach, use persuasion, and you can inspire people, instead of trying to generate fear to force them to do things.

In fact, if you think about all of the research and all of our own experiences: Who are the people  who are most influential in the various organizational contexts in which we are? Well, I will tell you. The people, the leaders, the mentors who actually care about the people they work with, want to truly empower them, and give them the resources they need so that they can accomplish their potential, those are the people everyone wants to work for. 

You may be thinking, “but they are taking the risk of sharing their power.” But you know what? The return is huge! Because when they do these things and do these things with the well-being of people in mind, then people really want to continue working with them, and they get to be even more influential.

So again, I don’t want to paint a rosy picture. There is the reality of the use of fear, but it’s not the only path. Inspiration can be even more powerful, and it is. We have the data showing that. 

TERRY: Great, thank you. Another question we have: While it’s true that everyone can gain a measure of power, systems of privilege and inequity make it more difficult for some than others. How does that affect advice for individuals and for organizations when working toward change?

JULIE: Yes, you are absolutely right, and I’m glad we can develop a bit on that because, to me, this is absolutely critical. I talked about that it’s related to the existing structures of powers, that power hierarchies have accepted orders of who commands more versus less power in society, and as a result, in organizations, because organizations are vehicles that actually reproduce those inequalities. 

So, yes. We are all not equal at the moment, even though there is this aspiration. I know you care deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion, so I’m actually going to take that example that I know you have been discussing and you’re going to discuss extensively over the next few days and weeks and months. In the book, it’s in Chapter 8, we actually give the example of Ellen Ochoa. I want to use her example to make a point that I think is absolutely critical. 

Ellen Ochoa, some of you may know her. She’s in the world of tech, certainly, and science. She was the first Latina astronaut to go to space in the U.S., and she later became the head of the Johnson Space Center – which, as you know, is the center where American astronauts get their training. When Ellen became the head of the Johnson Space Center, she had two objectives; she wanted to make it more inclusive and even more innovative. Those were the two objectives. 

So, in answer to your question about how we change our organizations: She was also very realistic. She knew, thanks to her own path and trajectory, that promoting a token woman, or a token representative of racial minority groups, wouldn’t be enough to change the organization. She also knew that organizing a one-off diversity training wouldn’t be enough to change the organization. What did she do? She actually created a council in charge of reviewing all of the processes and systems at the Johnson Space Center. 

The members of the council, representatives from across the organization, had one mission, which was to screen all the processes and systems to understand their influence on how resources were allocated inside the Johnson Space Center. She didn’t stop there, and this is the most important part. She didn’t look at only, with them, at hiring, and promotion, demotion; the more formal processes and systems. They also looked at the informal ones. 

Let me give you an example, Terry. It could be that Michelle Obama is coming tomorrow to the Johnson Space Center. Who is going to give her a tour? It could be, Terry, that you have been doing that for the past 10 years, and you have been doing it so well that we all go, “Terry should do it because it is so important, and she is so great!” But no! The truth is that if we really want to change the distribution of power, then we need to change the distribution of these opportunities – including the informal ones, which means we need to be aware of those opportunities, and we need to make people in the organization aware of them. 

That’s exactly what she did with the council she created, and that had a great deal of impact because resources, as a result – especially those valued resources, were reallocated in a fairer way inside the organization. A lot of the people I have interviewed at the Johnson Space Center now say that Ellen took people with her, and she was able to change the balance of power. 

The critical thing here is that, yes, we need to do more on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yes, we need to talk about it. We need to make the changes happen, but these changes are highly political. We will not be able to change things in an organization if we do not tackle the core question of power and what are the valued resources? Who controls access to these resources? If we tackle these questions, and we do it in a more systematic way, then the example of Ellen shows that, yes, it’s not easy; it’s complicated. The power hierarchies are deeply entrenched, but together, there is a lot we can do to make change happen. 

TERRY: Thank you so much. That is a great story, and so reflects the way we think about power and influence at NCWIT as well, and how we talk with our members about thinking through: What is the power? What are the resources, and how can you share and distribute them? 

All right, we have another question here. Does the route that one takes to acquire power influence how that power is used? For example, inherited power versus acquired power through developing skills, training, etc.  

JULIE: Well, certainly! The path we each have creates some kinds of dependence, and you can see some patterns emerge. But you know, we also all have a responsibility, which is the responsibility to then sort of get to understand the distribution of power in society and our own distribution, our own power; like, what we have access to, and think carefully about what we want to do.. 

Some of us have more power than others by virtue of our families, where we were born. As you said, the wealth that we have inherited, or that we are going to inherit – even the cultural capital that we are inheriting if we were in a certain kind of context. So, it takes for us to be aware of these privileges, and then, to think about what we can do to share the power that we have if we are really serious about redistributing the power. This is not an easy thing to do for those of us who have these privileges, but we see so many people doing it now, and doing it in a systematic way. It takes courage, and also takes being vulnerable.

Then, I also want to talk about those of us who actually do not have access to these resources and need to find a way to have access. This is where collective action is so critical. This is where we all need to join forces as part of those collective movements. 

But again, I’m going back to the motivation for writing the book. What I do see is that once people understand the fundamentals of power, then they are equipped with a tool. It is like having infrared glasses. You can finally understand things that you couldn’t understand before, and you can start strategizing.

As to, “Okay, if I care deeply about this set of outcomes, how can I be part of the movement to make that happen?” It’s not a matter of reinventing the wheel. It is a matter of thinking about how you can help, and join forces with others. 

Again, I don’t want to say it’s easy, but I think it is critically important. When people do it, they are more effective. I work with so many social change makers at the Social Innovation and Change Initiative who have amazing ideas – many of them in the world of tech, by the way. But, they don’t understand power, or they don’t want to deal with it. Then, we lose so much of their potential, because they don’t have any kind of impact when we need them to understand the politics of change and navigate them more effectively. 

TERRY: Right. Thank you so much. I think we have time for one more question. 

So, the last question for you is: can you talk about retaliation against someone when they exercise their power? How can this be mitigated?  

JULIE: Retaliation. Again, this is where you have to be thinking about the relationship as a two-way street. Right? So, in any kind of situation in which you are, it’s not only about you, it is about the other party. Could it be that the other party would retaliate? Absolutely, but then, what I would tell you is that, and we talk about that extensively in the first chapter of the book, once you understand the fundamentals of power, you understand that there are four strategies you can use to try to rebalance power in any situation. 

What are they? The first one is: attraction; I can try to convince you, Terry, that what I have to offer to you is more important than what you thought. Marketing people are especially set. You know, it’s what they do for a living. 

Now, the other thing I could do, the other strategy is: consolidation. Consolidation is a situation in which what I’m trying to do to rebalance power in our relationship is that I reduce the pool of alternatives to me that you have. That’s what workers understood when they unionized. This is also what happens when you think about a cartel, right? Or, a monopoly. 

Now, those are not the only two strategies, though. What else can I do to rebalance power? I can also try to change the imbalance by being less dependent on you. So, I could actually withdraw. Right? That’s the withdrawal strategy. I tell you, “You know what, Terry? What you had to offer to me, I needed that at the time, but I don’t anymore.” Right?

Then, there is the fourth strategy: expansion; which is, “I am looking for more alternatives to you to have access to what I need.” So for example, I may actually go and generate job offers at other kinds of companies and organizations, and then come back to you and say, “I have a lot of different options. Can we talk again?” If you think about that in the context of retaliation and what to do, then you have to be thinking about those, or the strategies you have, to mitigate these things.

Quite often, people also use those psychological resources that I talked about. Right? Which is like, you don’t want to feel miserable. Those of us who have a strong sense of affiliation, we don’t want to disappoint people. 

But, we have to be thinking carefully about why are we doing what we are doing; what do we want to achieve; what are the changes we want to see happen, so we can think about each of the strategies. It could be that we stroll, at some point. It’s one of the ones that you would want to use to step out and say, “You know what? I’m not going to be affected by these things if I truly believe that, in doing what I’m doing, I am helping other people.” 

Now, humility is critical, because sometimes people also have a good point when they react to what you are trying to do. Like, wanting to change doesn’t mean that you are right to want to always change. It could be that they have a point, and you need to change the kind of approach that you had, and go back to the drawing board, and revise your plan. 

TERRY: Great. Thank you so much. This is such an important and timely conversation. Like I said at the beginning, power is something we don’t talk about explicitly very often. Yet, we really need to if we’re going to address accessible systems in tech. 

This is an important step in moving beyond a focus on the numbers and taking a closer look at what kinds of power and influence marginalized groups are able to access when it comes to technical innovation. Addressing power at both the individual level and systemic level are important, and this session has provided practical ideas for how individuals and leaders can do so. Thanks again for joining us, Julie. 

JULIE: Thank you so much. 

TERRY: Attendees of the session are invited to download a free copy of Julie’s book, “Power for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business.” Please see the link that will appear in the chat box to download your digital copy. Also, don’t forget to order your virtual NCWIT Summit swag box featuring an issue of NCWIT’s re:think magazine, and other fun items. 

Please join us later today for a conversation with NCWIT research scientists Catherine Ashcraft and Brad McLain that builds directly on this session and continues the conversation about power. Doctors Ashcraft and McLain will be examining power, influence, and the myth of meritocracy within technology teams. They will also preview a practical diagnostic tool technical teams can use to assess and improve how power operates within their teams. Please register at 

Also, save the date for a future Conversation for Change. It will be coming on August 24 at 11 a.m. MT. Dr. Maya Israel will be sharing her research on strategies for supporting academically-diverse learners’ meaningful engagement in CS education. 

Finally, please take a moment to complete our survey by following a link that will show up in the chat. We read every single response, and we appreciate your taking the time to provide feedback. The survey link will also be sent out in a follow-up email. Thank you, again. We appreciate your participation.

Scroll to Top