Social Power Dynamics: Overview

chart to account for power dynamics

This article introduces the basics of social power dynamics.

To understand power dynamics as a discipline, see this article.

For power dynamics applied to social life, keep on reading.

Power Accountancy

First, we start with “Power Accountancy”.

As a definition:

Power accountancy refers to the attitude and skills to track and analyze power dynamics, and to leverage that analysis to select the best course of action to achieve your goals.

Power accountancy first needs a certain level of emotional and social intelligence, and an awareness of power dynamics -“Power Intelligence“-.
This website and Power University helps you develop both your awareness of power dynamics and your attitude and skills to influence them.

Traffic Light System

Not all power moves are the same.

The first major difference is that some behavior is empowering, while some is disempowering:

  • Empowering: gives you power
  • Disempowering: takes your power away

Since disempowering behavior is more dangerous, we differentiate it further.

Some behavior is almost meaningless and you might even “let it slip”, while other is highly disempowering and require immediate corrective action.

A simplified system to learn, understand, and categorize power dynamics is the “traffic light system”:

traffic light chart to account for social power dynamics

The traffic light helps you better understand and analyze power dynamics.
From micro to macro, use it to classify individual power moves, interactions, relationships, and people.

As an example for each, imagine the following behaviors in an office:

  • Empowering green: a colleague tells you: “I will drop my other tasks and send you that document ASAP”
  • Disempowering yellow: the boss tells you loudly and in front of the team “send me that document ASAP please”
  • Disempowering orange: a colleague tells you loudly and in front of the team “send me that document ASAP please”
  • Disempowering red: a report tells you, the boss, loudly and in front of the team “send me that document ASAP please”

We purposefully used the same example to highlight an important property of power dynamics:

Context Determines Intensity

What’s yellow, orange, or red is contextual.

To explain the power dynamics of the previous examples:

Empowering: a colleague who drops his other tasks is giving you top priority, and treating you like a superior with more important things to do.

Sub-communication: “you’re important, and higher power”.

Disempowering yellow: the boss is supposed to give you tasks, and everyone already knows that he is officially above you in the power hierarchy.
So there is little loss when he tasks you.
But still, there are degrees of power and status even in structured hierarchies.
So when he tasks you in a curt manner, it shows he has little respect, and that makes it slightly disempowering.

Sub-communication: “you’re most certainly below me, and I do treat you like you’re below me”

Disempowering orange: a colleague is at your same level, and usually not supposed to task you.
So when he tasks you without power protecting, that is quite disempowering for you.
If it becomes a habit, it starts becoming a reality that he is above you (“cementing”). And when promotion time comes, it’s probably not you who’s getting promoted.

Sub-communication: “I can task you because I’m higher power, or because my work is more important than yours (or both)”

Disempowering red: as the boss, you are officially above your reports. And you are supposed to be above them.
A report acting as he can freely task you is highly disempowering for your status, image, and authority.

It can happen of course that a report has to task you. But to avoid disempowering the boss, a smart report should be power protecting.
(example in Power University).
If they don’t power protect you, you should take steps.

Sub-communication: “I’m not expending any effort to show respect for your higher power and official authority as the boss. Maybe that’s because I, or the team in general, don’t even recognize you as the boss”.

Example: Leadership Power Dynamics

See Power University.

Power Accounting: It’s Crucial to Assess People

Power accountancy helps you assess people and relationships.

You want to be especially watchful at the beginning.
Are people:

  • Empowering you
  • Neutral and treating you as equal
  • Disempowering you

That tells you everything about how you want to deal with them, and what position they deserve in your life.

For example:

  • Empowering you: strategic friends who help with social proof
  • Neutral, respecting you, and treating you as equal: friends, potentially same value as you are, good for partnerships
  • Disempowering you: not friends. Take corrective actions, or end the relationship.

Power Protecting: A Skill to Develop

Power protecting means taking steps to minimize the disempowerment you cause to others.

Take this example:

Power-protecting report: boss, do you think you can send me that document today (power protects by leaving the final decision up to him)? That way I can finish this task for the client” (provides a rationale why he needs that document, and it’s a rationale that the boss is also likely to want and approve of).

This is power-protecting.
And it’s part of well-developed people and political skills.
A report who power-protects his boss is more likely to be liked and rewarded by the boss -and promoted-.

Power protecting works because the general rule is that nobody likes to be disempowered.
And when you don’t power protect, you disempower others. So failing to power-protect erodes social capital, harms your relationships, and makes it harder for you to make friends and allies.
On the other hand, properly power-protecting increases social capital, improves your relationships, and makes you more friends and allies.

Power-protecting is especially important with the types of personalities who are most likely to become high-value, high-power individuals -such as, the ones who are most instrumental to your own success-.

Power protecting is a skill you want to develop to:

  • Ingratiate your superiors: leaders and bosses are very quick to dislike the subordinates who disempower them. And they want to promote those who empower them
  • Make more friends and allies: people prefer to have as friends and allies those who power-protect them, rahter than who take power from them
  • Make fewer enemies: same as above. Most people don’t like those who disempower them. And especially not those who are high-value and high-power
  • Be smoother and more effective: often in life people aren’t contradicting, escalating, or denying you a favor based on what you do or say, but based on them feeling aggressed and disempowered.
    They’ll never admit to that, but as proper social strategist, you know better now.

Power University and this website help you to strategically power-protect, without losing power.

How to Keep Top Performers With Power-Protecting

This is more for leaders, founders, and managers.

See Power University.

Power Dynamics Principles

Some of the most important principles of social power dynamics:

1. Power Moves Add Up Over Time (Sum-Up Effect)

The effects of value-adding or value-taking power moves tend to add up over time.

So a string of yellow-level one-ups becomes the equivalent of an orange or red if you never take action.

Strategy
Act early to counteract or stop the power-taking behavior from reaching truly damaging levels.

Death By a Thousand Cuts

The first few power moves -cuts- do little harm.

But if you do nothing to prevent more cuts, you’ll eventually end up lifeless -or, in our case, powerless and at the bottom of the hierarchy-.

death by a thousand cuts in social power dynamics
As an example of a progression of death by a thousand cuts, imagine this social exchange:
  1. He takes the lead + dominant introduction: comes to you first, energetically shakes your hand, speaks loudly, look at you straight in the eyes, slightly aggressive. You remain neutral instead (losing out because of the net effect)
  2. He leads the conversation, asks “where are you from”: you comply, give him what he wants, without asking anything back. You relinquish any leadership on the interaction
  3. He makes a slightly power-taking joke about your nationality: for example “oh we have Lucio Corleone here, watch out for him guys”, and you laugh at it
  4. You propose place X to go to, he says that “only losers go there” and you should all go to Y place: people start seeing him as the leader, so they laugh at his joke and prefer going along with his leadership

And you can then have even more cuts in the future:

  • Cut 5, you arrive to the restaurants, he tells you where to sit because he wants someone else close to him: now he takes one notch higher with a more disempowering power move -an orange-.
    After all the yellows, the orange is the final nail in your coffin. You’re officially a nobody in the group. Since you never took action, it’s difficult for you to buck the trend now because the reality has “cemented”. And the reality is that he’s above you, and that you’re a low-status member of the group.
    Forget women in that group liking you, or guys wanting to befriend you.

2. Power Moves Gather Momentum Over Time (Momentum Effect)

Trends of power dynamics gather speed and power.

And with momentum, it becomes harder to change the dynamics later on.

Strategy
Act early, stop their momentum, or build your own momentum

3. Power Patterns Cristallyze And Become Reality (Cementing)

A pattern of power dynamics tends to form a new power reality.

For example, a string of power-taking power moves that you don’t correct for crystallizes the reality of you being lower power and lower status.
The aggressor/power mover instead ends being above you in the power hierarchy.

This is very important for your success and your life as well.
And it’s the reason why Power University can be so life-changing: it helps you prevent getting stuck at the bottom.

The consequences of a crystallized power structure are far-reaching.
In a workplace environment, if you get slotted beneath your colleague(s), you can hardly be promoted to a managerial role.
Lower-status individuals can hardly be promoted, no matter the skills they possess.
Lower status individuals are labeled as “non-leadership material”.
You become the guy/gal who “is a good guy, but doesn’t have “what it takes” for added responsibility”.

However, keep in mind that a cemented power structure is not unchangeable.
It just takes more willpower, more skills, and some time. But you can de-crystallize a bad power restructure, and re-crystallize a new one.

Strategy
Act early, act resolutely, correct power-taking patterns so you don’t end up lower down.

Mindset
Always be ready to re-negotiate a more favorable power level.

4. Your Level of Power Is Your Level, Minus Theirs (Net Effect)

If your level is 9.5, you might still end up second in command when a 10 is in the room.

Chart:

power differential chart in social power dynamics

Remember that social exchanges work over two channels: power, and warmth.

The power net effect is most pronounced when:

  • Warmth is at generally low or very low (think: adversarial exchanges, colder and/or aggressive individuals)
  • Status and hierarchies are being negotiated (VS when they’re already cemented)
  • Power & status heavily influence the outcome (think: a negotiation)

In general, do not overplay the importance of the net effect in collaborative relationships -else, you’re in the “dickhead-dom bucket”-.
But also do appreciate its importance in non-collaborative relationships and with more aggressive individuals -else, you’re in the naive bucket-.

4.2. Warmth With More Dominant, Low-Warmth Individuals Increases The Power Differential & Turns Into Submissivness

See an example here:

Jocko Willink: High-Dominance, Low-Warmth Alpha

Warmth generally functions as:

  1. Signal of friendliness
  2. Signal of being an ally on your side (VS a neutral or enemy force)
  3. Social balm (helps smooth things over)

When warmth is low, people are left wondering whether one is friendly or foe, and that raises the stakes of the power accountancy.
But even if you generally know someone is not an enemy, low warmth comparatively increases the importance of power and dominance.
And the “net effect” increases with individuals who are high power but low in warmth because your friendliness can be easily misread as submissiveness and/or kissing up to the powerful.

Take as an example Jocko Willink.
A stereotypical “alpha” and real-life G.I.-Joe, Jocko is around a 10 in power. And he also often acts with low-warmth.
Example:

Interviewer: Everybody go check out the podcast and book. I read the book. And now I don’t blame the producers for anything, I just own all the mistakes they make, and they love that. Thanks Jocko
Jocko: (barely laugh, expends very little effort) Outstanding

Jocko does not thank the interviewer for the effort he expended to promoting his book, and barely reacts to his joke.
If the interviewer had been any friendlier and warmer, he’d have lost a lot of power.
The interviewer didn’t lose much power though because he delivered his joke neutrally and with little warmth.

Jocko Willink-types are potentially challenging to deal with.
They are naturally very high power. And their low warmth makes you lose even more power if you’re overly warm.
If you don’t want to lose too much power then, you must:

  • Dial up your power
  • Dial down your warmth (like the interviewer did)
  • Go lower energy (which is why this website cautions against the “high-energy charisma” type)

See Power University for the “how”.

And what about those who are actively trying to dominate you?
Then it’s even more necessary to dial down your warmth, because friendliness with aggressive people equals submissiveness.

5. Power Imbalances Change Relationships, Can Turn Win-Win Into Lose-Win

From a power dynamics perspective, there are two types of relationships:

  1. Relationships between equals: power tends to be balanced, people expect balance, and imbalances are either harmful or resisted
  2. Relationships between non-equals: power imbalances are the norm, and most people are cool with it

An imbalance of power in relationships between non-equals is often the norm.

When relationships are either officially (ie.: boss-employee) or non-officially between non-equals (ie.: high-power man, feminine woman), you can live with power imbalances.

However, even in many non-equals relationships, the extent of that power difference is up for negotiation.
And you’re better off being in the upper range of power, than in the lower range.

However, this distinction is important because many relationships start as equals, but evolve into non-equals over time.
And they change over time depending on the power dynamics.

As a general rule:

You can lose your status as an equal if you let too many power-taking actions go unchecked.

Over time, people also lose respect for you if you let them disempower you. They might start thinking of you as unworthy of them.
And you can hardly have a win-win of equals when one party constantly acts higher power than you.

Strategy
Back to the basics: don’t let people disempower you, stand up for your rights, and take action to re-empower yourself.

Social Strategy 101: Calibrating Power

Calibration is the name of the game for the advanced social strategist.

This is a power chart of two people with different baseline power who first meet each other.
In simpler terms, imagine you meet a more dominant individual (black) while you keep behaving as you usually do (lower dominance compared to him):

If you don’t understand the chart, please read how a candlestick chart works

In the chart, from the start, the other guy behaves and talks more dominantly.
And if you don’t adapt, you keep losing power over the next few backs and forth until the net result cements with you being “below” him.

As a general rule:

The individual who is or behaves more dominant ends up being “above” in the 1:1 relationship, and higher status in the group’s hierarchy.

So the first rule of calibrating is to increase your power when dealing with more dominant individuals.
IF they are also low-warmth, then it’s often a good idea to also decrease your own warmth (heads up: it’s possible to be warm without losing power but it’s more advanced).

For more examples, Power University.

Keep on reading to learn how you can improve your results when you meet more dominant individuals.

Go Higher Power With Dominant Individuals, Lower With Submissive Ones

The good social strategist calibrates both “up” and “down”.

Attention: you don’t necessarily, always have to calibrate.
The great news is that once you reach a good level of baseline power and warmth, you can stick with it and do generally great.

However, if you want the next level, then calibration and flexibility are the way to go.

We’ve already seen the costs of not adapting to more dominant, potentially lower-warmth individuals.

But there are also costs to over-dominance.
So you may also want to adapt to lower-power individuals.
Coming across as too higher power can make people uncomfortable, fear you, compete with you, or generally feel a “disconnect” with you.
That can stand in the way of developing rapport, social capital, and generally making friends and allies -which is a basic strategy of life success-.

Increasing your warmth and friendliness is especially good if you’re a naturally very dominant or imposing guy, and you don’t want to come across as a power challenge with people who have a higher rank than you have (example: a boss at work).

See Power University for more examples of “strategic submissiveness”.

Power Negotiation

Remember:

Power is a negotiation and you’re sitting at that negotiation table.

You also decide what level of power and status you have.

So the power-accountancy of an exchange is more like a set of steps of action-reaction.

As in this chart:

Let’s take the same example we saw earlier and review how a higher power individual handles it:

1. He takes the lead + overly dominant introduction
You, re-empowering self-defense 1: you shake his hand equally powerfully or put a hand on his forearm if you don’t have as much strength. If he exaggerates, comment on it (ie.: “man, are you trying to crush my hand or something”).
You look at him straight in the eyes and say “pleasure meeting you man” with a strong and resonant voice.

Effect: Your answer brings the power back to almost neutral territory.

2. He takes the lead of the conversation, asks “where are you from” with a dominant attitude
You, re-empowering self-defense 2
: avoid 100% compliance. For example say that you’re a world citizen or that it’s “difficult to say”, or that you “live in X, but travel around”.
If you answer, you ask him a question back so that it’s not just you answering, but also asking.

Effect: Since you either avoid submitting or turn it into a give & take, you now go into power-positive territory.

3. He ignores your question, makes a power-taking joke about your nationality: for example “oh man, everyone who’s been to Italy had his stuff stolen. What’s wrong with you guys”.
You: re-empowering self-defense 3: you one-up back, for example: “nobody stole anything from me, maybe your friends look like gullible marks”

Effect: you match power-taking with power-taking, showing power-awareness and strong resolve. Since he tried to one-up you but you one-up him back and are winning the frame battle, you go into positive territory.

For more, see Power University.

FOCUS POINT: The eagle move is to re-empower others from a position of power

Notice the chart: your last move is re-empowering him.

That’s the eagle’s approach.
Once you’ve won, you use your position of power to make friends and allies and bring people back up.

So you’d say something like “all cool man, glad we could clarify, you seem like a cool guy”.

Re-Empowering Strategies & Techniques

Definition:

“re-empowering techniques” are all the techniques and behaviors we use to defend against disempowering power moves and retain or regain our power, status, respect, and self-respect

Re-empowering techniques are, by their very nature, about (social) self-defense.

A good chunk of this website is dedicated to self-defense.
Some examples:

Traffic Lights Strategies

Reminder:

Power moves are contextual.

That being reminded, this paragraph gives you a general idea to strategize around the traffic light system:

Green: Keep It Coming, Give Back

A good general approach is to reward people when they give you value or power.

But there are two opposite approaches that can work:

  1. Empower them back
  2. Take as much as you can and act entitled (power-hogging)

See Power University for two examples.

Seek to Re-Empower

Power hogging can be fair in some situations.

And plenty of people can be duped into giving more and more.

However, to provide general guidelines, in most situations, you want to re-empower and give back.

TPM does not endorse manipulating and taking advantage of others as much as you can.
But we also seek to analyze things morally, for what they are.
And there are practical reasons for this strategy.

Why so?
Because:

  • High power and smart people don’t usually keep on giving to those who just take, so the “hogging” strategy mostly brings powerless and low-value people around you
  • Eagles feel no need to hog, from a self-development perspective, you generally want an antifragile ego without needing the validation of hunchmen, brown-nosers and (low-value) admirers
  • Win-win of equals tend to make for larger pies: hogging partains to relationships of non-equals. And the bigger pies grow when you exchange with your equals, not with the fawners

Yellow: be smooth, ignore, or use “passive resistance”

Yellow-level power moves are the most common power moves.

Paradoxically, they can be more challenging because they require more awareness to spot them, and more social skills to deal with them.

See more in micro-aggressions.
And some pointers here:

1. Avoid sending any submissive signals

Make it a point to remain high-power instead.

2. Avoid thread-expanding on the power-taking

If they joke at your expense, do not add to it and do not self-deprecate.

3. Avoid confirming the power-taking frame

For example, if they make a joke or comment that self-frames them as higher power, don’t laugh at it, and don’t say it’s true.

4. Ignore and observe

The very first time you can “ignore and observe”.

Such as, you take note of the power move, but do little or nothing.

You use this option when:

  • It’s not worth your effort
  • You want to give them the benefit of the doubt
  • You know you can re-empower yourself easily later on
  • When it’s strategically the best option

As an example of a strategic situation, think when you’re new in a group.
Imagine the leader pulls a yellow-level power move to “show who’s the leader”.

In that situation, you might not want to escalate against the wrong person or, since you’re new, risk looking overly combative.
So you take note, gather your intelligence, and grow your status before taking action.

When to address or let it go is a fundamental topic of self-empowerment.
Read more here.

5. Least Effort Re-Empowerment

Least effort resistance is a form of “passive self-defense” that requires no action.

Instead, it requires that you remove some type of behavior.

As we mentioned earlier, you remove the warmth and friendly signals:

Why do you want to remove kind and friendly behavior?

Because kind and friendly behavior in the face of power-taking behavior makes you look submissive and confirms the power structure of them being above you.

Some examples of removing friendly behavior:

  • Ignore him, and avoid greeting him first. Greeting someone first is a way of sub-communicating “I’m really happy to see you”. Never greet an asshole or power-taker first -or only do so in a perfunctory, quick and neutral fashion”
  • Use neutral tonality: saying “pleasure meeting you” or “cool” with a flat tonality removes much of the warmth and friendliness of those words. You can avoid any form of “good seeing you” and just say “hey man” instead
  • Don “neutral faces”, without smiles. Big smiles upon meeting or talking sub-communicate “it’s really a pleasure meeting you”. Instead, use an obviously fake, tight-lipped smile, or don’t smile at all. Looking away while greeting is a more extreme way of removing all warmth (example later)

See Power University.

This approach is compatible with one of the fundamental laws of power, and can be very effective.
If you execute it well and if you have some status the power taker will expend effort on you to get some more friendly signals.
When that happens, you successfully turned the power tables.

PRO-TIP: Go lower power if you go very unfriendly
If you go very unfriendly it might be better to also lower the power or you can come across overly confrontational, which is not good for you.
The best approach of this strategy is to cut down on the communication with the power taker, so you have less room for friendly signals, as well as for high-power behavior.

Orange: Higher intensity, + direct action

You can use the same techniques as above, but with higher intensity.

More direct options are possible, such as:

Proactive re-empowering

For example:

  • Match over-dominance with dominant behavior of your own for example, if they cup your hand while handshaking, it’s calibrated to place a hand on their forearm
  • Match their disempowering move (tit for tat): disempower them as they disempower you. It’s important that you remain calibrated here.
    We’ll see several techniques in the frame control lessons.
  • Go assertive
  • Go meta

Red: enforce boundaries, give out-out warnings, or strategize

Two generally good options:

  • Enforce your boundaries directly: for example “I don’t appreciate this tone”, or “this is very rude, I have no intention of accepting this tone”
  • Use an assertive format:
  • Give an out-out: see the post “dealing with break-up threats” for examples
  • Let it slip publcily, ask for private conversation: this is very good in work situations with higher rank superios.
  • Machiavellian strategizing: it can happen that you might not have have the power to do much in some situations. That’s the time to strategize, either for future encounters, or for deeper changes in yourslef and/or your life

Fair Value Power

Fair value is an approach we apply to both power and value.

As a quick reminder for value: when you over-sell yourself or act entitled, you market yourself above fair value. That can work sometimes to get more. But it also often rubs people the wrong way.
Especially those who know or who can assess the “true” value.

Well, it’s the same for power.
When you act higher power than your current level warrants, that can help sometimes get more power and status.
But it can also rub people off the wrong way.

So as general rules:

  • Act closer to your power in formal hierarchies: when power and status are set, you want to act closer to your level of recognized power.
    Such as, act like you’ve got power on the people below you, and power-protect with the people above you.
  • Act higher power in power-informal settings: when there is no fixed status and rank, you have more latitude to negotiate power.
    So you want to act higher power because your behavior influences reality. So that little extra tends to maximize your results.
    Just make sure to add warmth, since over-dominance destroys social capital and makes you enemies
  • Be power-careful upon first meeting someone: the beginning of a relationship is crucial.
    As a general rule, you want to be on your best high-power/high-warmth behavior, and calibrate to the context and individual (slightly higher power than they are + re-empowering is a good rule of thumb).

Now We Understand Why Dominant Isn’t Always Better

Thanks to Matthew for the infographic!

The concept of “fair value power” is one of the most foundational aspects of social effectiveness.

Some guys who first approach power dynamics have a mindset that “more dominant and more power is always better”.

Of course there is a place and time for “as much power as you can have”.

But that is obviously not the best approach as your baseline behavior because “always more dominant” usually:

  • Piss off the wrong people who have more power and authority than you have
  • Make you a lot of uneccesary enemies
  • Erodes social capital
  • Builds resentment

We call that approach of “more power at all costs” dickhead-dom.
And dickheads aren’t the most successful folks in life.

The most successful ones across the board instead tend to have a baseline of high-power and high-warmth, and calibrate to the situation.

This is a preview from Power University. Join the program for the full version.

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