Power, agency and influence: a new framework about complex relationships

Developing a Framework

In this post, I am going to explore the relationship between power, agency and influence. The intent is to unpack each of these words and their relationships to each other. Power, agency and influence can have a constructive or destructive relationship cycle. We will explore how power, agency and influence in a constructive cycle lead to better outcomes and conversely how power, agency and influence in a destructive cycle lead to worse outcomes.

We love the analogy about peeling an onion. We peel back one layer to reveal a new similar layer, each layer enabling us to offer a new idea or thinking and adding complexity. Often we use this model for ourselves to get to our inner core and what values drive us.

As we peel back each layer of power, agency and influence, we will find there more complexity and interconnectedness; much we cannot grasp in the context of decision making and governance. As we peel back more layers of interconnections, we will find there are more dependencies which give rise to layers of uncertainty, ambiguity and remaining is increased risk and uncertainty. No one single outcome is possible; there are always at least two.

We find we are not peeling an onion but unpicking different ideals, beliefs and connectedness. Peeling the onion does not pick up the relationship and interconnectedness between the layers it does “just removing” layers. Further, even with different layers, it does not highlight the dynamic and relational processes between different onions.
Power, Agency, and Influence

Figure 1 power, agency and influence

Power, in the context of figure 1, is that someone/ thing has mastery and is be able to exercise control. Control can be exercised by muscle, state (through policy and legislation), through the mind, through societal norms or state law. There are enormous bodies of work which explore the vast varieties of types of power. The purpose is not to write an essay on power but rather to understand power, in a context of agency and influence.

We do not consider by whose authority power is sort, taken or given in any situation, only that someone has control, neither are we exploring the links to sovereignty.

Agency in the context of figure 1, specifically human agency, can be defined as an actor who has the capacity to act. Individual agency is framed by our views on responsibility and accountability. Agency in terms of our action depends on our motivation, capacity, and experience. Given that agency is defined by an actor who has the capacity, there is a deep link to biochemistry and nutrition. Agency on its own, without understanding the brain-gut axis alongside traditional capacities, means we don't fully appreciate why we might do act in a certain way.

Influence in the context of figure 1, is the “person” in this case who can help determine an outcome. The influencer can affect the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something. Influence and influencers can use incentives, skills and tools on those with Agency and Power. Incentives may be economic in terms of more power, more agency or money and the influencer has changed behaviour in the system, player or actors such that they have created the outcome they wanted. To influence, they may use skills such as creating doubt, forgetting to pass on information, inducing guilt, shame, research, presentation of risk or creating/ ignoring bias. The influencer who uses these kinds of skills is like Machiavelli, where the outcome happens using any means. The tools which an influencer can use include: education, knowledge, facts, access, nudge, behavioural economics and science.

With power, agency and influence, we have to consider who, in and given context the actors are. In the vast majority of cases, the actor will come with a bias towards a political agenda, an economic/commerce agenda or a personal agenda. It is self-evident when we discuss power agency and influence that power might rest with a politician, the actor with agency might be represented as a business, and the influencer could be individual. While all the other combinations are possibilities, this paper is not going to explore all scenarios. Still, we want to think through what leads to a constructive relationship or a destructive relationship and how we might understand it. As this helps inform the future of governance.

The scenario below explores starts from the influencer, which in this case is the prime mover. Again it would be entirely possible that we could start from power or agency as the prime mover. The scenario is summarised in Figure 2, destructive relationships.

Consider an influencer, a regulator, whose primary role is to write and provide regulation. [In many cases the regulator has power to enforce regulation, but consider the power in this case rests with those who provide the legislative framework for the regulator to exist, act and as such have teeth[powers.]) As an influencer of the market, you wish to have the most significant regulatory body possible. The larger your staff and reach of your regulatory body, the more kudos and job opportunities will come to the senior leadership team. You will win more awards and be paid more. As the influencer, you propose rules, regulation and law to the person in power. Of note, power is shifting in this relationship as a regulator has both delegated authority to create more regulation and take on more power. The relationship between the influencer and the person with power is such that the influencer persuades the body with power that the more rules and regulations they have the more power the person who holds power will have. In this scenario, we can see that the person with power is the government. The government, through its economic policy, believes that rules, regulation and law provides the right degree of control and restriction over the people with agency. The government interpretation of what is best for the market leads them to believe that control and restriction will end up with a more efficient and effective market than one left to run on its own. The person with agency and a free market position now face a barrage of red tape, rules, regulation and law in which they can operate. The person with agency treats the person with influence with suspicion, and they are unwilling to share data or information openly. The person with the influence has to write more rules to create enforcement and reporting. The relationship between the person with agency and the person with influence is one driven by secrecy and trying to avoid the overly restrictive regulatory environment. This scenario creates a very destructive loop, one that we see in highly regulated markets. Each of the players is unable to break their behaviour. The person with influence wants more rules and regulation, the person with power enjoys the control and probably a conflict of interest with tax income, the person with agency finds every way to ensure there is not more regulation by sharing the least information possible and complying to tick box compliance.

Figure 2 Destructive Relationships

What this scenario starts to set out is that is when each of the players in a destructive loop behaves destructively it is a near-impossible cycle to escape. What may be less evident is that if one player acts destructively, and in their own interests, all the players will start to work in their own interests, and a destructive cycle will evolve. The player who kicks starts a destructive cycle can be the influencer wanting a more significant role, the person in power wanting more control over the agents, or the person with agency who wants to hide and not be transparent. When we look at the constructive cycle next, we can see that if all the players act constructively, there's a very different outcome, but it does require all of the players to continue to act constructively to keep the cycle going. A diversion into game theory would be prudent here if this were a book 

Starting with the same prime mover who is the ‘influencer’ let's now consider a constructive cycle. This is summarised in Figure 3 constructive Relationships.

In this scenario, the influencer believes in a smaller lighter regulator doing the right thing; they believe in education and rights. The influencer can approach the person with power and rather than demanding more rules and regulations, they suggest that the person with power should educate and give more freedom to the person with agency. In this case, the person with the agency can respond by effectively giving the person with power more power through the freedom that's been granted to them. By example, highly competitive markets in capitalist based economies (transport, entertainment, leisure, utilities) have become less regulated. Still, aspects of the delivery and operations, such as health and safety, remain highly regulated.

Further, in a constructive cycle, the person with agency will likely have an open and trusting relationship with the person with influence. It could be likely, but the agency/influencer relationship is one of the relevant transparency. The influencer, because they can determine what the person with agency is doing by, say API access to the dataset can instruct the person with power on the right types of education that the market needs. Further, considering “Rights” to be offered to various people with agency in the market who can use freedom constructively for a better society, which builds more trust relationships.

Figure 3 Constructive Relationships

Contrasting the two cycles, constructive and destructive, the obvious question is what leads to a constructive or a destructive outcome. Further, in the destructive cycle, do the consequences get worse for all the players and in the constructive cycle, do the outcomes get better? In the destructive cycle, it could be argued that the outcome for the influencer is hugely beneficial as they end up with the larger regulatory body, more market kudos and an increase in their income. Equally, the person with power may believe this route enables them to raise more tax income. So if we look purely at outcomes it depends on which outcomes for whom as how we make the judgement if the cycle is constructive or destructive. Do we want better outcomes for humanity and society or a few players?

This framework is to set oversight and governance in a different context. The current governance thinking for a regulated industry is biased towards more rules, regulation and law. Given this political design, driven by a desire to change those with agencies behaviour? We may not end up with the outcome we intended, better banking, better transport or better utilities. The current government thinking on unregulated Industries is more liberal. Still, that thinking has not generated better outcomes for society as we have seen from climate change and the broken supply chain model as a result of the pandemic. The reason for presenting this framework is to reflect on the question; “is this working for us”. As shown in the opening pages of this paper, it is clear that the current cycles of governance and oversight are not working for regulated or unregulated Industries. Therefore, we need to think about the future of governance that can take us forward from where we are and does not just do more of the same.

Using the model to consider the set of relationships between shareholders, director, and the executive team. This is set out in Figure 4 Board Relationships

Whilst the diagram shows power rests with the shareholder, equally, power can be the directors or exec team, agency can with the shareholders and exec team and influence with the shareholder or directors. Every combination is possible. The point here is less about the possible scenarios and relationships but the special case where a founder is a Director, major shareholder and CEO.

Figure 4 Board Relationships

In the special cases where a team is able to hold power, agency and influence there is a significant increase in the need for better governance and oversight to outside parties that decisions are fair, reasonable, explainable and have wider benefits.

It is worth drawing a personal view of a commercial, charity or health situation you are aware of, using the power, agency and influence framework to think about how the actors act to create better outcomes for say the capital providers.