Power and Influence - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Power and Influence

Course Number 2056

Associate Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan
Spring; Q3Q4; 3 credits
28 Sessions


This is a course about understanding power and influence dynamics and learning to use them as effective tools for analyzing your surroundings and achieving your goals. It is a course about getting things done in the real world, where politics and personalities often seem to hinder rather than help you. Power and Influence is a course for those of you who want to make things happen, despite the obstacles that might stand in your way. This course is also intended to unearth your implicit theories and feelings about power and influence. These have a profound impact on how you perceive problems and opportunities, and subsequently, how you decide upon particular courses of action. To help you develop a realistic point of view, you will start from day one to become aware and to test your assumptions about power and influence.

Course Objectives

This course includes conceptual models, tactical approaches, self-assessment tools and simulation exercises to help you develop your own influence style and understand political dynamics as they unfold around you. By focusing on specific expressions of power and influence, this course provides you with the opportunity to observe effective and ineffective uses of power in different organizational contexts and career stages. It will also introduce difficult ethical questions associated with the use of power and influence. By design, this course will challenge you to define for yourself what will constitute the ethical exercise of power and influence in your life. The objectives of the course are to help you:

  1. Develop a conceptual framework for understanding power and influence. You should be able to define power and influence and begin to appreciate how essential they are for your own career. You will learn how to identify critical sources of political conflict, and how to use tools to assuage conflict or harness it to produce constructive outcomes.
  2. Practice diagnostic skills that will enable you to map out the political landscape, understand others' perspectives and power bases, and learn to predict and influence their actions.
  3. Assess your own power bases and influence style and consider strategies for expanding them.
  4. Begin to build a repertoire of influence tactics that will enable you to be effective in a variety of contexts and situations.
  5. Develop your own strategy for building and exercising power and influence ethically and responsibly.

Course Content

After introducing you to the volatile dynamics of power and influence at work, the course will help you develop a deeper understanding of political issues through three interrelated modules:

Power and influence in interpersonal relationships: How to influence others?
What is power? Where does it come from? In the first module, we begin to explore the nature of power and influence in interpersonal relationships. We will discuss personal, positional, and relational sources of power. In particular, we will analyze the importance of networks of relationships as sources of power. This module includes an exercise (Network Assessment Exercise) designed to help you assess your own network of relationships.

In this module, we will also consider how to leverage personal, positional, and relational power bases through influence tactics that fit individual and situational needs. We will learn how to understand our "influence targets," so as to tailor our approach accordingly. What motivates people to respond to influence attempts? How can you cater your influence approach to the different needs and preferences of those around you? How can you recognize when your influence attempts are not working, and how do you change approaches when this happens?

We will explore these questions through a series of cases about people in very different situations with different opportunities and constraints on the influence tactics they can use. We will also use two exercises. The first one is a coaching exercise that will enable you to get feedback on your communication skills. It is meant to help you better project both warmth and strength and address the particular challenges that you may face as a public communicator. The second exercise is the Influence Style Questionnaire (ISQ), which will provide you with personal feedback on how your influence style is perceived by co-workers and the extent to which you adapt your style to situational requirements.

Power and Influence in organizations: How to navigate organizational politics?
This module addresses the question of how power and influence manifest in organizations. To be successful in getting things done in organizations, it is critical that you be able to comprehend the patterns of interdependence among organizational participants and to diagnose their relative power. Our focus will be on learning to read and diagnose the political landscape in organizations. How do power and influence dynamics work in organizations? What are the key sources of power in organizations? Why do we see political conflict in organizations? How can political conflict be handled to serve constructive ends?

We will consider how to address these questions over the course of your career. We will map out typical political challenges at different career stages with an emphasis on early career issues. We will cover several topics including building credibility quickly, cultivating mentors and networks, and managing ethical dilemmas. We will consider strategies for acquiring power over time in an effective and ethical manner and explore common early career transitions with an eye towards crafting strategies for navigating inflection points successfully. In order to do so, we will use cases as well as a self-assessment exercise (Self-Monitoring Questionnaire), which is designed to help you understand how much you adapt your behavior to fit situations.

We will also discuss the challenges of change implementation in organizations. To implement planned organizational changes, you will need to overcome the potential resistance of other organizational members and persuade them to adopt new practices. Organizational change implementation is thus an exercise that requires the effective use of power and influence. How can you be an effective change agent in your organization? What are the factors that are likely to affect your success? We will address these questions through case discussions and through a simulation (Change Pro) that will give you the opportunity to practice change leadership in a team.

Finally, we will discuss the challenges and opportunities of co-leadership in organizations. Under what conditions can co-leadership be effective? What are the challenges associated with co-leadership? What are the potential benefits of co-leadership?

Power and Influence in society: The challenges of transforming your environment
In this final module, we will look at power within the context of society. We will think about the challenges of influencing your broader environment. Who are the powerful in society and how did they obtain their power? Can individuals affect the distribution of power within a larger system? How can power be used to produce great benefit or harm? Can the use of power be both self-enhancing and self-destructive? Why do even the most powerful fall? To address these questions, we will use cases that are meant to make you think about how to possibly influence your broader environment. We will also use a simulation (Star Power) in order to help us think about the challenges of changing existing power hierarchies in society. Reflecting on these issues is crucial for anyone who wants to make a difference in the world.

Course Pedagogy

The course relies on a mix of traditional case studies, biographical case studies of historical figures, exercises/simulations, films, and class visits by influential people. The exposure to the development and use of power in many different social settings and at various points in history allows a comprehensive analysis of power in action. Self-assessment tools are included throughout the course to help you assess your own bases of power and influence style. A number of readings, both required and recommended, supplement the case material.

Course Requirements

Grades will be based on two components (each accounting for 50% of the final grade): (1) class participation (including class attendance, contribution to class discussions and completion of the different exercises and simulations), and (2) final paper assignment. Below is a more detailed presentation of these different exercises, simulations and assignments. (Please note that some exercises and simulations may be added to this list over the course of the semester).

Network Assessment Exercise
The Network Assessment Exercise is designed to help you identify patterns in your networks of relationships.
Public Communication Coaching sessions
This individual coaching exercise is meant to help you better project both warmth and strength and address the particular challenges that you may face as a public communicator.
Influence Style Questionnaire
The Influence Style Questionnaire (ISQ) is designed to allow others to provide you feedback on your influence style. This information can help you identify the more and less productive methods you use to exert influence on others.
Self-Monitoring Questionnaire
The Self-Monitoring Questionnaire is designed to help you understand how much you adapt your behavior to fit situations.
Change Pro Simulation
This simulation gives you the opportunity to practice change leadership in teams.
StarPower Simulation
The StarPower simulation is an in-class face-to-face exercise designed to help you experience how people react to shifts in power over time.

Final Paper Assignment
The course ends with your final paper in which you apply the lessons of the course to your own situation. The final paper should be thought of as the last and the most important case study in the course. The final paper is designed to help you improve your power and influence skills in your own career. You have two options:

Option 1
You can analyze a political situation you experienced at work before you came to HBS or during the summer. Ideally, you will choose a situation in which you felt politically blind-sided, or felt that you came out in a disadvantaged position. Alternatively, you may simply analyze the politics of your last job. In addition, instead of focusing on your last job, you may also use experience you may have gained in another organizational setting, such as a political or volunteer organization, as the focus of your paper.

Option 2
If you have a job by the time you begin writing this paper or are choosing among alternatives, the final paper will give you an opportunity to apply the concepts and lessons of the course to your new position. In addition, instead of a new job, you may also use a new (or future) position in another organizational setting, such as a political or volunteer organization, as the focus of your paper.