Power and Influence : Two Peas in a Pod? (On Influence – Part V)

Influence involves a relationship between those in power and those who want to influence power.

Late Sunday night on July 12, 2015, a social activist in Barcelona twittered the hashtag #ThisIsACoup denouncing the Eurozone leaders’ proposed bailout measures to Greece, arguably among the most austere since World War I. By the next morning, the hashtag appeared in over 400,000 tweets–an astounding figure in Twitter terms. In Brussels, pressure had been mounting among the European leaders, creditor institutions, and Greece to reach a deal. The threat hanging over their heads? Greece’s exit from the Eurozone.  On Monday morning, as the bleary-eyed leaders emerged from a 17-hour summit meeting, the rest of us sat on the edge of our seats wondering what was next. Others–politicians, economists, social activists, journalists, and folks  around the world weighed in on the austerity measures of bailout deal, reportedly Greece’s “last chance.” Information technologies like Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, blogs, and other social media devices were ablaze with sharing, tweeting/re-tweeting, denouncing, acceding, liking and discussing viewpoints and information on the latest turn of events (to the last second!), among riots and marches speaking against the deal across Europe. Who was paying attention? Did it matter?

a map of thisisacoup twitter

Map of twitter users using the hashtag, #ThisIsACoup July 13, 2015

Greece is but one example of our changing times.  We all sense that the world is changing and that many of us have less and less to say about the changes.  We feel more and more “powerless,” but are left perplexed and unable to understand how to influence those in power

For this piece on influence, we started off thinking about tools of influence–how to change those in power. And just as we were writing, the political-economic European question about Greece interjected. The high-level negotiations unfolding in Brussels between Eurozone leaders, creditor institutions, and Greece’s Prime Minister taught us something about how power intersects with influence. Like Greece and the Greek people, we had been naive in our ideas about influence. We forgot that influence involves a relationship between those in power and those who want to influence power. We gave little attention to critical questions such as who has power, who exercises power, what are the interests of those in power and how is power woven into the capacity to influence the relationship. We overlooked the point that analyzing the basis of a power relationship is critical to understanding how to influence.   Influence is an attempt to change a relationship.

The latest negotiations around Greece and its dangerously-close “Grexit” showed us in concrete ways that understanding the power dynamics among and between actors (governments, people, organizations and institutions) needs to be understood in terms of interests and how to influence those interests.  Germany’s interests are related to Germany’s economy and voters–not Greek citizens’ wants and desires.

For us power is, as Bertrand Russell notes, “the ability to produce intended effects”.  It’s about having people, groups, organizations, and governments behave as prescribed.  Europe led by Germany prescribed what is required, and Greece now will have to determine whether they want to be led by this prescription.  Power is at play.

In his description of the weekend that “saved” the euro and put Greece in its place,, a prominent Belgian economist called it the “template of future governance of the Eurozone being written in Brussels: “submit to German rule or leave.”[1] On his part, Tsirpas had worked with the assumption that the Greece nation and people had the ability to influence; in the end, it had none. Regardless of the referendum results, the Eurozone leaders and creditor institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and others had the power to decide Greece’s fate, and they did.  Greece miscalculated its influence of the process.

Perhaps in this case, we can argue that the European heads of state and the creditor institutions operated no differently than corporations. In Noam Chomsky words, “People who aren’t owners and investors have nothing much to say about it. They can choose to rent their labor to the corporation, or to purchase the commodities or services that it produces, or to find a place in the chain of command, but that’s it. That’s the totality of their control over the corporation.”[2] Indeed, the leaders sitting around the negotiation table in Brussels were aware that they were accountable solely to the nations who elected them, not to the nations’ electorate or the hundreds of thousands of individuals taking to the streets, or denouncing the bailout on Twitter and other social media.  The bedrock of influence rested on influencing those with power.

Understanding power is critical to appraising influence, the kind of influence and the range of influence that can be achieved. How do power and influence operate in your organization? Who has power? Who has influence? What’s at stake? Can power be influenced? What does it take to influence power?

Fundamentally, what we walk away with here, is that knowing who your stakeholders are, and what kind of power they hold is critical to understanding how power and influence work in an organization. The same applies to understanding how other tools of influence work. Tools like education, resources, legitimacy, reputation, argument, readiness, and context–the subject of our next piece.  Join us as we continue this conversation.

[1]Ian Traynor, “Greece crisis talks: The July weekend that saved the euro and broke the EU?” The Guardian, July 13, 2015.

[2] Noam Chomsky, “Secrets, Lies and Democracy,” in Arthur Naiman, ed. Noam Chomsky, How the World Works. Interviewed by David Barsamian. Soft Skull Press, 1994, p. 138.

Co-written by Charles Lusthaus and Sonia Cancian

For over 30 years, Dr. Charles Lusthaus (@CharlesLusthaus) was a Professor in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education at McGill University. During that time, he taught Educational Management courses in organizational theory and behaviour, strategic management, organizational development, planning, and monitoring and evaluation to over a thousand graduate students. Dr. Lusthaus is also a founding partner of the Universalia Management Group and is reputed for having pioneered an approach to institutional and organizational assessment (IOA). Today, the framework is used by a variety of international bodies including CIDA, IDRC, IDB, IUCN, and ILO. 

Dr. Sonia Cancian is a historian with a large number of publications on gender, family, and emotions in migration studies in Canada, the United States, and Italy. She has taught at Concordia University’s Dept. of History, and is affiliated with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) at McGill University as well as with the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University.

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