Using power

Some observations on using power, gleaned from reading the B325 course book, Managing to Collaborate:

  • Perceptions of power imbalance usually lead to feelings of mistrust.
  • Collaborative relationships work better when there is no power imbalance.
  • There is a perception of greater power with the holders of the ‘purse strings’.
  • Bargaining power often comes from one party having a resource that another needs.
  • Bargaining power is also dependent on how critical a collaboration is to an organisation – the more critical, the less bargaining power.
  • Members with formally acknowledged authority (a structurally stronger position) have more power than those who do not.
  • The notions of ‘power over’ (own gain), ‘power to’ (mutual gain) and ‘power for’ (altruistic gain) exist on a continuum.
  • The balance of power changes over time, and may shift between individuals or organisations.
  • Different types of power may be relevant at different times.

(Source: Huxham and Vangen, 2005).

Points of power

There are many seemingly mundane activities that make up the day-to-day activities associated with collaboration, but these activities can actually form points of power that can strongly influence the collaborative agenda and the way it is carried out.

Typical points of power (or power infrastructure) include:

  • Naming
  • Membership decisions
  • Identity attributed to individuals and organisations
  • Invitation and buy-in
  • Bringing people together
  • Meeting management
  • Meeting agendas and format
  • Meeting follow-up

(Source: Huxham and Vangen, 2005).

Types of power

The social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven (1958) identified five bases of power:

  • Legitimate power – stemming from a belief that a person has a right to exercise power based on their status or position.
  • Reward power – stemming from an individual’s ability to provide rewards or compensation.
  • Expert power – based on knowledge held by an individual as a result of their skills, knowledge or experience.
  • Referent power – based on personable qualities such as charisma and attractiveness.
  • Coercive power – stemming from an individual’s ability to punish or impose sanctions.

(Source: The Open University, 2012).

It appears to me that the most effective modern managers must attempt to make use of a combination of referent and expert power, perhaps backed up by some legitimate power, and maybe some reward power too. Coercive power seems like a last resort.


Raven (2008) subsequently added a sixth basis of power, which is potentially one of the most desirable types of power:

  • Informational power – stemming from an individual’s control over access to, or of quality of, information. Informational power can be as simple as telling someone how to do something, and in so doing their subsequent behaviour changes.

Disciplinary power

Foucault (1979) claims that ‘disciplinary power’ is exercised by those more powerful than their subordinates in order to make their subordinates behave in ways in which the ones in power wish them to. Foucault goes on to argue that power structures not only control people’s actions directly, but indirectly whereby people become easier to control to the extent that they discipline themselves to act in line with the wishes of the person or organisation that controls them.

An example is following rules at work. These rules are not just imposed on us, we also make sure we follow them, and try to enforce them upon others. We do this because it is expected behaviour, and what is considered to be normal. However, we also do this partly because we feel we are being watched or scrutinised and wish to avoid any potential penalties for not following the rules.

Some examples of disciplinary power I have observed at different places of work:

  • Swiping in and out via security pass (monitoring time spent on site)
  • Use of company telephones (monitoring for personal calls)
  • Use of company email (monitoring for personal emails)
  • Use of company internet facility (monitoring for excessive use)
  • CCTV in corridors (monitoring people away from their desks)

Some places I have worked actually employ all of the above techniques!

An example outside the workplace includes average speed cameras which are typically installed in roadworks on motorways, or on sections of managed motorway such as the M42 or M25. These devices are particularly effective at meting out disciplinary power: we make sure we abide by the speed limits in order to avoid an almost certain penalty for exceeding it.

Sources and dimensions of power

Power is possessed by individuals, but is integral to the relationships and structures that have been setup within organisations (French and Raven, 1958) (Pfeffer, 1992).

While individual power stems from personal skills and attributes such as knowledge, motivation, ability to deal with difficult situations, and people and language skills; structures also strengthen the power of an individual in terms of their position or rank, relationships with others, their level of popularity or support, and the access they have to key resources.

Interestingly, the degree of power an individual holds is relative to the perceptions of others. While an individual may think they have little power, if others believe the individual has a lot of power, the individual is invested with more power than they think they have.

From an organisational perspective, it is possible to design power into the structure of the organisation so that individuals working in core departments have more power because of where they work. This embedded power can be very effective because people tend to accept such power structures without questioning them.

Power can be bother overt (visible, clearly apparent) or covert (hidden, difficult to observe).

(Source: The Open University, 2012).