Mark Suster just wrote an article for entrepreneurs on the topic of power. In it he examines the relationships between parties who have less power and parties who have more and how entrepreneurs can navigate this Hobbesian landscape.
Which raised a question in my mind, what are the types of relationships we can have that are not primarily defined by power? Three types of relationships are possible for us:
- Trusted relationships. These comprise our authentic relationships where we feel the most connected. They include relationships with our families and our friends. We can be more vulnerable with these people because we trust that they will not take advantage of our vulnerability for their own selfish gain.
- Relationships based on influence. We encounter many people with whom we don’t have a trusted relationship, but they are people whose view we want to influence. We persuade them by appealing to our reputation (we ask them to trust us), by appealing to rational argument, or by making an emotional appeal. Persuasion forms the basis of most business relationships from television commercials to large, multi-year consulting projects. Thousands of articles are written each year by marketing and sales specialists on the topic of persuasion.
- Relationships based on power. People and organizations use power when they cannot build trust and when they can’t persuade. They use it to achieve their goals even when their achievement is at the expense of others. Mark’s article focused specifically on small entrepreneurial companies that wish to project more power than they actually possess. He explains the challenges of learning how to work with powerful players in your ecosystem who exploit their strength because they can.
In most relationships all three types of relationship are at play—trust, influence and power. The relative amounts of each varies.
Close friends or family members operate mostly on trust, but influence and power still have a role in these relationships.
Two small companies that sell services to each other operate mostly on influence. Neither has a lot of power over the other. Even though they might have worked together for many years, they cannot trust each other beyond the bounds described by their business relationship. So they continue to persuade each other by appealing to character, reason, and emotion.
And even when two players like a large company and a small company work together, each is constantly trying to influence the other to think or act in some specific way despite the unbalanced power between the two. For example a large computer company might want lots of small developers to write software for its platform, so it creates an ecosystem for the developers to thrive.
This description of the world and our relationships paints a bleak picture where the only people whose word you can trust are close friends and family.
We’ve left out one group whose role makes the world a little less bleak. That group is people with power who decide to use their power for good. In my world, that group includes Mark Suster. It also includes people like Brad Feld, Steve Blank and Seth Godin.
Mark is a successful entrepreneur and investor. Yet he devotes significant time with his blog, speeches, and videos to teaching young entrepreneurs how to succeed. He is making a contribution to his field of work, entrepreneurship.
Mark’s article makes an excellent and vital point that we live in a Hobbesian world and that we need to be realistic about negotiating the political landscape where we find ourselves.
But Mark’s practices also demonstrate that the world is not entirely Hobbesian and that power is not always used entirely for personal gain.