Power dynamics is defined as the study of how power is negotiated in social exchanges.
This whole website is dedicated to power dynamics, and this article provides you with an overview of what power dynamics are, and why they matter to you.
Power Dynamics Definition
Power dynamics is:
The science of power negotiation among people and groups, as well as the ability to acquire social status and influence, recruit, or bend others to one’s will on the way to reaching certain goals.
And I will define power as:
Power is the ability to achieve predefined goals
This definition also shows that power, in and on itself, is agnostic, and it’s neither good nor bad.
It’s all about how you use it.
Both the definitions of power dynamics and power are very broad, and purposefully so.
As such, power dynamics includes the study of:
- Strategies to reach an end or goal
- The negotiation of conflicting interests
- The cooperation among individuals to reach goals
- Influence and persuasion, as well as manipulation
- The negotiation of status between individuals and within groups
- The formation and acquisition of rank-titles within structured hierarchies
Here is how power dynamics are applied to some of the major areas of human socialization:
1. Leadership Power Dynamics
The study of power relations among leaders and followers
Leadership is all about power dynamics.
As a matter of fact, it’s power dynamics that differentiate between great leaders, and poor ones.
Poor leaders solely rely on rank and formal authority (hard power, or “power over”), while better leaders acquire power by virtue of their personality and people’s skills, making others want to follow them (“power through”).
Great leaders would acquire social status within groups even if they had no rank and formal power over others.
Once they also get the rank, they then also acquire the formal power, which just serves as addition and formal recognition of their already existing power.
2. Social Power Dynamics
The study of power dynamics among people, either in group interactions, or in 1:1 interactions
Social power dynamics and social skills are very similar, but this website believes the following:
You are not really going to become socially skilled unless you learn power dynamics.
- People respect more those whom them to be “high power”
- You can only be effective with others when you learn how to persuade
- Unless you learn power dynamics, you can easily become a victim of manipulation
Social skills courses and books address the basic level of “social skills”.
For the advanced level, you need power dynamics.
Of course, some social skills teachers scoff at social power dynamics.
They think of it as the “sociopath” approach to social skills. They’re not fully right, but they’re not fully wrong, either. But to me, that’s exactly the reason why people must learn power dynamics.
If you don’t, the sociopaths of this world will always move ahead of you –and they are already doing so!-.
You lose, and we all lose.
I repeat, yet again, one of the mantras of this website from “The Prince”:
A good person is ruined among the great numbers who are not good
So wake up and smell the coffee of life, “nice guys”.
You can’t go through life as a lamb, hoping that you will never meet a wolf. Don’t be a lamb instead.
Or, even better, keep being a friendly lamb but carry concealed.
And of course, just get the full overview:
3. Dating Power Dynamics
The study of mating negotiations, as well as strategies to gain sexual access to potential mates
Dating is an interesting arena of social interactions.
Men and women have both converging and diverging interests, which also vary depending on what point of the interaction they’re at.
For example: men have historically gained from quick sex with multiple partners. But women haven’t necessarily gained in being one of those many women.
And valid for both:
Or get the full overview (plus more than what’s in any single article):
- Dating Power Dynamics – the ebook
4. Power Dynamics in Relationships
The study of how power and influence is negotiated within long-term relationships
I need to say this right away:
One of clearest signs of a toxic and potentially abusive relationship is a partner that within an intimate focuses mostly or solely on power
That being said, power dynamics are real and present in all relationships, including the healthy ones.
And the knowledge of mastery of power dynamics supports healthy relationships.
As a matter of fact, it’s the lack of knowledge of power dynamics, coupled with a lack of personal power, that allows abuse to exist.
The way I see it is this:
Focusing on power dynamics only, is toxic. Living as if power dynamics didn’t matter, is naive. And dangerous.
- Relationship power dynamics 101
- How to maintain leadership in LTRs
- Healthy relationships: an overview of the best literature on relationships
5. Workplace Power Dynamics
The study of power dynamics in workplace environments, including the strategies to gain unofficial status and win official promotions
Workplaces the whole world over are a hotbed of politics and (hidden) Machiavellian power moves.
Why hidden and Machiavellian?
Because workplaces tend to be somewhat schizophrenic.
On the surface, there are the company’s values that almost always stress cooperation, teamwork, and the “whole” over the individual.
But deep down, most people know that there are plenty of diverging and conflicting interests all over the workplace (them VS their bosses, them VS their teams, and, most of all them VS their employers).
Workplaces are also hotbeds of hidden power strategies because they are unnatural.
Think of it this way:
- It’s a place where groups of people congregate unnaturally. The typical social dynamics are exacerbated by the high-school-like sense of “having” to be there
- People go to work to get resources. We care deeply about resources since they confer power and sexual advantages. That makes work a crucial aspect of life’s success.
- Competition is high, but masked. The resources are limited, which fuels competition. But in many workplaces competition is also frowned upon in favor of teamwork. Power moves and strategies are secret and aggression is covert.
- People are ranked by titles, not necessarily value. Titles confer authority and power. But titles only loosely overlap with personal value and true leadership skills. That fuels resentment, and gossiping.
- There are written guidelines and unwritten ones. Promotions are theoretically based on merit, but in reality, they are also based on politics, appearances, liking, and more or less illegal or immoral exchanges.
Power dynamics in the workplace are often referred to as “politics”.
And since politics are embedded in the very structure of the workplace, the sooner you can accept you also must get good at politics, the sooner you can start thriving in it.
- Career strategies: start here
- Mastering office politics
- Executive skills
- Women’s guide to reaching the top
Power Dynamics in The Social Sciences
Are power dynamics a recognized discipline?
Yes and no.
No in the sense that, as important as power dynamics are in our daily lives, not to mention in our personal success and self-development, there is no recognized branch in the social sciences going by the name of “power dynamics”.
On the other hand, power dynamics are embedded in the very fabric of most of the recognized social sciences.
Think of political science studying the different types of regimes, for example. At the core, that’s the study of how power and decision making is structured.
So albeit there is no “power dynamics” university course, power dynamics, when done well, is still a scientific discipline. It’s scientific because the different branches of the social sciences all contribute with papers and researches to our understanding of power dynamics.
- Psychology: understanding people is the foundation of any strategy that involves other people
- Evolutionary psychology: with researches on what people find attractive in a mate, evolutionary psychology sheds scientific light on how people negotiate mates, plus helps us understand the most common mating strategies and their effectiveness
- Economics: provides insight on the exchange and transactional aspects of human relations, both in social settings (see: theory of social exchange) and in dating (see: sexual marketplace)
- Organizational psychology: provides insights on the dynamics of business organization and, to some extent, on office power dynamics and career strategies (albeit I wish there was more there)
- History: shows us what strategies peopled deployed across the millennia to acquire and maintain power, and what has worked -or failed- over and over. Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Laws of Power” and one of the most popular writers on power dynamics, based almost all of his work on history
Power Dynamics History
Here are some of the most important milestones in power dynamics as a discipline:
- 5th Century BC – The art of War: the first text on how to negotiate power in military campaigns, focused on the “rawest” negotiation of personal power and competing national interests
- 1513 – The Prince: the first book on power dynamics and manipulation applied to politics, and the first treaty of “realpolitik”. Later followed by “The Dictator’s Handbook“, providing a lucid analysis of the power dynamics of dictatorships
- 1822 – The Memoirs of Giangiacomo Casanova: the first book with advice and strategies on dating. Later followed by “The Game“, which gave birth to the modern “PUA” phenomenon, and “Dating Power Dynamics“, the first book dedicated to power dynamics in dating
- 1928 – Propaganda: the first book dedicated to the manipulation of the masses through mass media and public relations
- 1959 – The Bases of Social Power: the first study on power to go “mainstream” within academia. It lead to a spark of interest in power dynamics, improved theoretical models of power, and new researches, including on leadership styles and strategies
- 1976 – The Selfish Gene: the first book that popularized the idea of humans as machines designed to maximize self-interest based on value-adding exchanges, fake pro-sociality, and manipulation (it’s more complex than that and not 100% true, but still a fundamental text and an important shift in the social sciences)
- 1999 – No Logo: a seminal text on the unparalleled power of brand and marketing in our age, plus exposing marketing as nothing more than manipulation of the masses
- 2017 – ThePowerMoves.com: the first website dedicated to self-development through the mastery of power dynamics
- 2019 – Power University: the first self-development course taught through the prism of power dynamics, including manipulations to be aware of, and “realpolitik life-strategies” for success
The Stigma on Power Dynamics
In spite of the neutrality of science and the obvious truth that power strategies can be used for good, the discipline still has a negative connotation attached to it.
And since few scholars openly talk about power strategies and power, there is still a sense of “underworld” around power dynamics.
In a way, it’s actually understandable -albeit ultimately myopic-.
“Power dynamics” sounds like the type of science that power-hungry and unscrupulous individuals would be drawn to.
And it’s not completely untrue. Obviously, very driven people, as well as power-hungry people, will be more interested in strategies to win, succeed, and get what they want from others.
But the other side of the coin is equally true: power dynamics can also be deployed for personal self-defense. And strategies for power and personal success can be deployed within an ethical framework that ultimately adds value to the people around and to society as a whole -which is what this website recommends-.
To draw a parallel with physical effectiveness, power dynamics are a bit like martial arts and weight training.
Power dynamics are social martial arts. Albeit there are always exceptions, martial artists are usually not the kind of people who start fights. And they are more likely to offer help and support when needed.
Equally, the student of power dynamics are not the kind of people who engage in bullying, and are the ones who are most likely to offer help in socially challenging situations or when under social assault.
Public Rejection of Power Dynamics & Manipulation
The reason why power dynamics is in good part an “underworld” discipline can be well explained through, guess what?
Power dynamics itself.
This is why:
1. Virtue signaling targets power dynamics
Power dynamics offer a great opportunity for virtue signalers.
By making a big show of rejecting power strategies, the person who publicly scorns power dynamics seeks to conspicuously advertise his kindness, pro-sociality, and “superiority” to what he deems “unworthy knowledge”.
2. Power dynamics authors make easy targets for manipulative power grabs
Some people attack those who study and share power dynamics wisdom to acquire power for their own.
After all, those who openly discuss power dynamics make for easy targets.
See here an example:
Funny thing, this person who lambasted me for writing, pretty much ethically we could argue, about power dynamics, engaged in a nasty power move that was designed to acquire (scraps of) power and influence.
Basically: I attack you for openly and ethically teaching about power dynamics, while I use those same manipulative power moves, unethically, and while denying I am doing so.
3. Public scorn, private consumption
And of course, there is the “feign public disinterest, but consume privately”.
Adding the previous steps, this works like this:
- Say publicly you abhor power dynamics
- Cash in those virtue signaler’s social points
- Discourage others from learning power dynamics
- Privately do learn power dynamics
- Enjoy the edge against the weaker competition that you manipulated into not learning power dynamics
I have a funny story for this one, actually.
I once had a Facebook connection who commented with one of those “shame on you” rants on one of my posts.
A few days later, he wrote me saying my article was “interesting”.
Yet a few more days later, he wrote another message asking me to coach him (without offering anything in return, of course: what do you expect from a guy like that? :).
This is the same game that some feminists are playing on other women.
Why Learning Power Dynamics
In the forums, I realized I had to make this clearer.
The main advantage of learning power dynamics is not that you can “dominate the frame” or “be the leader of every group”.
Those are part of it, but not the main goals.
Instead, one of the biggest benefits, as well as one of the major goals of learning power dynamics, is to move beyond value-subtracting behavior and to either demand or influence others to adopt more value-adding behavior.
The main goals of learning power dynamics are:
- Learn to set more collaborative frames, for more win-win relationships
- Learn to move more relationships from confrontational to collaborative
- Learn to defend yourself from nasty power moves and social assault
- Learn to recognize toxic people, and cut them out of your life
- Finally, learning how to become a higher quality, more effective and powerful individual
The Contribution of Power Dynamics
In my opinion, and contrary to what some might think, it’s not only the individual who gainst by learning power dynamics, but it’s society as a whole.
There are different reasons why:
- Wolves don’t need to learn how to be wolves: those who are born as wolves quickly learn power dynamics on their own. It’s those more empathic and good-natured people who never learn them
- Real sociopaths aren’t going to study power dynamics: they don’t have the patience and conscientiousness for it
- In a world with no lambs, wolves are out of luck: predators prey on easy prey. The fewer easy preys in this world, the less abuse in this world
- Less scum and more cream to the top (plus more meritocracy): some people with little skills and power-awareness can sometimes get to the top by being aggressive, looking the part, and charming/manipulating others. When more people, including more good ones, know how to play those games as well, then actual skills become more relevant
And, now, after we’ve gone through this overview of power dynamics, we can revisit that Machiavelli’s quote:
A good man is ruined among those who are not good.
But a good man who has learned power dynamics is armed and ready.