Taking Another Look at Where Power Comes From

July 16, 2018 Leave a comment


This is a repost of a third in a series of posts on power, facilitation and collaborative process that former IISC Senior Associate Linda Guinee wrote back in 2010. Last week we reposted Linda’s piece “What is Power Anyway?,” which followed a new post by a few of us on power and meetings. Enjoy!

More about power and group processes. There have been a mountain of books written about the “bases of power” and the “types of power”.  I’ve done some work to try to boil it down – and find thinking about this very useful in moving forward the conversation about how to address power issues in group processes.

In the 1950s, French and Raven put out a proposal about five “bases” of power, which others added to. Bases of power are what gives a person or group power. French and Raven came up with these five:

  • Reward Power – power that comes from the ability to reward the other party for complying
  • Coercive Power – power that comes from the ability to punish the other party if they do not comply
  • Legitimate or Normative Power – power that comes from accepted group, community or societal norms or values which are generally viewed as “legitimate”
  • Referent Power – power that comes from being identified with a person or group (for example, so and so gains power by being friends with X or being a member of Y group)
  • Expert Power – power that comes from the perception that the person or group has knowledge

Morton Deutsch later added a sixth:

  • Ecological Power – power that comes from being able to control one’s social or physical environmental in such a way that the modified environment induces a desired behavior or prevents an undesired behavior.

As well, there are some types of power that seem especially relevant when thinking about facilitating group processes.

  • Environmental Power – “A” is more able to influence his or her environment and overcome its resistance than “B”
  • Relationship Power – “A” is more able to influence “B” favorably and to overcome “B’s” resistance than “B” is able to do with “A”
  • Personal Power – “A” is more able to satisfy his desires than “B”
  • Issue Power – “A” sets the agenda for the conversation, determines which information will be shared and which topics will be discussed, who will be involved in discussions and decisions.

Issue power is critical to agenda design and facilitation. Foundational to IISC‘s methodology are attention to stakeholder involvement and clarity about decision making. Determining which conversations will and won’t happen can limit what actions may be taken afterward. “Non-decisions” can limit the scope of a conversation and of decisions being made – both in good and bad ways. Without full information, people may be aware of and raise important issues. And the initial framing of a discussion has been shown to have a very significant impact on decisions that are made.

And again, power is operating at different levels: at the interpersonal level, the group level and the systemic or structural level. At the systemic level, Joyce Fletcher describes that power tends to function in more insidious ways and has much less to do with personal authority than with conventional wisdom about what is considered “normal” or “appropriate.” Without careful attention, we can easily internalize, accept and give voice to dominant thinking, unknowingly reinforcing the status quo.

Which brings me to a few questions for this week: What other bases and types of power do you see operating in groups? And what does all of this have to do with thinking about how to design and facilitate a group conversation? What would you add?

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