Power: You Have It
As human beings we are interested in power and understanding how power exists and of course, how we can obtain more power in our lives. Let’s face it: Most of our conflicts are power-based, meaning that when you get right down to it, at the heart of the conflict you have two people who are trying to gain power or equalize the power in their relationship.
The concept of power is a funny thing because as we discuss in my classes, power is perceived in a relationship and most of the time we perceive there to be a power imbalance. Power is negotiated in our relationships each and everyday, sometimes in very small ways. Allowing your office mate to pick where you go for lunch allows power to temporarily shift in their favor. Maybe you’re doing that so that when you need to make a power play your office mate is more willing to allow the power to shift to you—you can think of power as currency in a sense.
Sometimes when it comes to our relationships we feel powerless. While we are never truly powerless (we always have the power to leave a relationship) we can feel as though the power is out of balance and that can become a problem for our relationship. As I tell my students: It is important to know what type of power you have and what type of power your relational partner has so that you can successfully negotiate power (with the end goal ideally being that you equalizing the power in your relationship).
So, what types of power are there? There are two different power source models that I teach in my classes and I’ll share with you both.
Power (Bases) Sources (Paraphrased from an article originally published by American psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, 1959)
- Expert Power: Pretty self-explanatory, when you know more about a specific area than someone else you would have expert power. Think of this as occurring when you know how to work the latest technology device but your boss doesn’t. Your boss needs your knowledge/expertise and thus, in that instance you have power.
- Legitimate Power: This type of power is “granted” to someone based on a title or position that a society or culture has deemed as being worthy of power. An example of people with legitimate power might be: law enforcement, politicians, and your boss. We respect the person’s title and thus, give them power.
- Referent Power: My students seem to love when I talk about this type of power! This power exists because of who you are as a person. Are you charismatic? Engaging? Do people gravitate to you? You might have referent power. This is probably a reason why we let celebrities sell us products—we like them and give them power over us.
- Reward/Coercive Power: Many of us in the work world have experienced these types of power. Someone has reward power when they can give someone else something they want (i.e. better hours, a pay raise, etc.). That same person probably also has coercive power where they can take away a reward and/or punish the other person (i.e. giving them less hours, bad shifts, etc.). Finding the balance between using reward and coercive power is tricky and parents are always trying to figure out this balance!
R.I.C.E. (Paraphrased from the work of William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker, leading Interpersonal Conflict scholars)
- Resource Power: Very similar to reward power in that if you have something someone wants you can have power over them. Siblings everywhere know this all too well if there was only one family car that everyone wanted to drive it. Know your resources and know what they are worth—it will matter in your life.
- Interpersonal Linkages Power: The phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” rings true here. We can have power in a situation simply because we know the right people. Just be careful that you don’t “name-drop” too often—no one likes that person.
- Communication Skills Power: A personal favorite of mine for obvious reasons: If you know how to communicate and use your words correctly that can provide you with a lot of power, not just in your relationships but in life. Communication majors, rejoice!
- Expertise Power: See expert power above.
Know what type of power you have and how to leverage it, it could make a difference in your next conflict situation.
As I remind my students though: Use your power for good, not evil.