- Explain different conceptualizations of power
- Describe the relationship between power and oppression
- Discuss behaviors associated with high status in a group
- Differentiate between the common power bases in groups
- Discuss what it means to exercise power ethically
Given the complexity of group interaction, it’s short-sighted to try to understand group communication without looking at notions of power. Power influences how we interpret the messages of others and determines the extent to which we feel we have the right to speak up and voice our concerns and opinions to others. Power and status are key ways that people exercise influence within groups. In the storming phase of group development, members are likely to engage in more obvious power struggles, but power is constantly at work in our interactions within and outside our group whether we are fully conscious of it or not. In this chapter, we will define power and discuss its relationship to systems of privilege and oppression and to status within groups. We will also discuss the bases and tactics of power that can operate in groups and teams, as well as the ethical use of power.
Take a moment to reflect on the different ways you think about power. What images come to mind for you when you think of power? Are there different kinds of power? Are some people inherently more powerful than others? Do you consider yourself to be a powerful person? We highlight three ways to understand power as it relates to group and team communication. The word “power” literally means “to be able” and has many implications.
If you associate power with control or dominance, this refers to the notion of power as power-over. According to Starhawk (1987), “power-over enables one individual or group to make the decisions that affect others, and to enforce control” (p. 9). Control can and does take many forms in society. Starhawk explains that,
This power is wielded from the workplace, in the schools, in the courts, in the doctor’s office. It may rule with weapons that are physical or by controlling the resources we need to live: money, food, medical care; or by controlling more subtle resources: information, approval, love. We are so accustomed to power-over, so steeped in its language and its implicit threats, that we often become aware of its functioning only when we see its extreme manifestations. (p. 9)
When we are in group situations and someone dominates the conversation, makes all of the decisions, or controls the resources of the group such as money or equipment, this is power-over.
Power-from-within refers to a more personal sense of strength or agency. Power-from-within manifests itself when we can stand, walk, and speak “words that convey our needs and thoughts” (Starhawk, 1987, p. 10). In groups, this type of power “arises from our sense of connection, our bonding with other human beings, and with the environment” (10). As Heider explains in The Tao of Leadership, “Since all creation is a whole, separateness is an illusion. Like it or not, we are team players. Power comes through cooperation, independence through service, and a greater self through selflessness” (77). If you think about your role in groups, how have you influenced other group members? Your strategies indicate your sense of power-from-within.
Finally, groups manifest power-with, which is “the power of a strong individual in a group of equals, the power not to command, but to suggest and be listened to, to begin something and see it happen” (Starhawk, 1987, p. 10). For this to be effective in a group or team, at least two qualities must be present among members: (1) all group members must communicate respect and equality for one another, and (2) the leader must not abuse power-with and attempt to turn it into power-over. Have you ever been involved in a group where people did not treat each others as equals or with respect? How did you feel about the group? What was the outcome? Could you have done anything to change that dynamic?
UNDERSTANDING POWER AND OPPRESSION
Power and oppression can be said to be mirror reflections of one another in a sense or two sides of the same coin. Where you see power that causes harm, you will likely see oppression. Oppression is defined in Merriam-Webster dictionary as: “Unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power especially by the imposition of burdens; the condition of being weighed down; an act of pressing down; a sense of heaviness or obstruction in the body or mind.” This definition demonstrates the intensity of oppression, which also shows how difficult such a challenge is to address or eradicate. Further, the word oppression comes from the Latin root primere, which actually means “pressed down”. Importantly, we can conclude that oppression is the social act of placing severe restrictions on an individual, group, or institution.
Oppression emerges as a result of power, with its roots in global colonialism and conquests. For example, oppression as an action can deny certain groups jobs that pay living wages, can establish unequal education (e.g., through a lack of adequate capital per student for resources), can deny affordable housing, and the list goes on. You may be wondering why some groups live in poverty, reside in substandard housing, or simply do not measure up to the dominant society in some facet. As discussed at a seminar at the Leaven Center (2003), groups that do not have “power over” are those society classifies or labels as disenfranchised; they are exploited and victimized in a variety of ways by agents of oppression and/or systems and institutions. They are subjected to restrictions and seen as expendable and replaceable—particularly by agents of oppression. This philosophy, in turn, minimizes the roles certain populations play in society. Sadly, agents of oppression often deny that this injustice occurs and blames oppressive conditions on the behaviors and actions of the oppressed group.
Oppression subsequently becomes a system and patterns are adopted and perpetuated. Systems of privilege and oppression discriminate or advantage based on perceived or real differences among people. Privilege here refers to the benefits, advantages, and power that are gained based on perceived status or membership in a dominant group. For example, Thai and Lien (2019) discuss diversity and highlight the impact of white privilege as a major contributor to systems and patterns of oppression for non-privileged individuals and groups.
Additionally, socialization patterns help maintain systems of privilege and oppression. Members of society learn through formal and informal educational environments that advance the ideologies of the dominant group, and how they should act and what their role and place are in society. Power is thus exercised in this instance but now is both psychologically and physically harmful. This process of constructing knowledge is helpful to those who seek to control and oppress, through power, because physical coercion may not last, but psychological ramifications can be perpetual, particularly without intervention. As shared knowledge is sustained through social processes, and what we come to know and believe is socially constructed, so it becomes ever more important to discuss dominant narratives of our society and the meaning they lend to our culture, including as it relates to our interactions in groups and teams.
So what do systems of privilege and oppression mean for groups? Members in groups do not leave their identities or social and cultural contexts at the door. Power and status in groups are still shaped by these broader systems of privilege and oppression that are external to the group. This requires group members to reflect on how these broader systems are shaping dynamics within the group and their own perceptions and behaviors.
Relationship Between Power and Status
In a group, members with higher status are apt to command greater respect and possess more prestige and power than those with lower status. Status can be defined as a person’s perceived level of importance or significance within a particular context.
Our status is often tied to our identities and their perceived value within our social and cultural context. Groups may confer status upon their members on the basis of their age, wealth, gender, race or ethnicity, ability, physical stature, perceived intelligence, and/or other attributes. Status can also be granted through title or position. In professional circles, for instance, having earned a “terminal” degree such as a Ph.D. or M.D. usually generates a degree of status. The same holds true for the documented outcomes of schooling or training in legal, engineering, or other professional fields. Likewise, people who’ve been honored for achievements in any number of areas may bring status to a group by virtue of that recognition if it relates to the nature and purpose of the group. Once a group has formed and begun to sort out its norms, it will also build upon the initial status that people bring to it by further allocating status according to its own internal processes and practices. For instance, choosing a member to serve as an officer in a group generally conveys status to that person.
Let’s say you’ve either come into a group with high status or have been granted high status by the other members. What does this mean to you, and how are you apt to behave? Here are some predictions based on research from several sources (Beebe & Masterson, 2015; Borman, 1989; Brilhart & Galanes, 1997; Homans, 1992).
First, the volume and direction of your speech will differ from those of others in the group. You’ll talk more than the low-status members do, and you’ll communicate more with other high-status members than you will with lower-status individuals. In addition, you’ll be more likely to speak to the whole group than will members with lower status.
Second, some indicators of your participation will be particularly positive. Your activity level and self-regard will surpass those of lower-status group members. So will your level of satisfaction with your position. Furthermore, the rest of the group is less likely to ignore your statements and proposals than it is to disregard what lower-status individuals say.
Finally, the content of your communication will probably be different from what your fellow members discuss. Because you may have access to special information about the group’s activities and may be expected to shoulder specific responsibilities because of your position, you’re apt to talk about topics which are relevant to the central purposes and direction of the group. Lower-status members, on the other hand, are likely to communicate more about other matters.
There’s no such thing as a “status neutral” group—one in which everyone always has the same status as everyone else. Differences in status within a group are inevitable and can be dangerous if not recognized and managed. For example, someone who gains status without possessing the skills or attributes required to use it well may cause real damage to other members of a group, or to a group as a whole. A high-status, low-ability person may develop an inflated self-image, begin to abuse power, or both. One of us worked for the new president of a college who acted as though his position entitled him to take whatever actions he wanted. In the process of interacting primarily with other high-status individuals who shared the majority of his viewpoints and goals, he overlooked or rejected concerns and complaints from people in other parts of the organization. Turmoil and dissension broke out. Morale plummeted. The president eventually suffered votes of no confidence from his college’s faculty, staff, and students and was forced to resign.
Bases of Power in Groups
Within groups, there are a number of different ways in which power can operate. French and Raven (1968) identified five primary ways in which power can be exerted in social situations, including in groups and teams. These are considered to be different bases of power.
In some cases, person B looks up to or admires person A, and, as a result, B follows A largely because of A’s personal qualities, characteristics, or reputation. In this case, A can use referent power to influence B. Referent power has also been called charismatic power, because allegiance is based on interpersonal attraction of one individual for another. Examples of referent power can be seen in advertising, where companies use celebrities to recommend their products; it is hoped that the star appeal of the person will rub off on the products. In work environments, junior managers often emulate senior managers and assume unnecessarily subservient roles more because of personal admiration than because of respect for authority.
Expert power is demonstrated when person A gains power because A has knowledge or expertise relevant to B. For instance, professors presumably have power in the classroom because of their mastery of a particular subject matter. Other examples of expert power can be seen in staff specialists in organizations (e.g., accountants, labor relations managers, management consultants, and corporate attorneys). In each case, the individual has credibility in a particular—and narrow—area as a result of experience and expertise, and this gives the individual power in that domain.
Legitimate power exists when person B submits to person A because B feels that A has a right to exert power in a certain domain (Tjosvold, 1985). Legitimate power is really another name for authority. A supervisor has a right, for instance, to assign work. Legitimate power differs from reward and coercive power in that it depends on the official position a person holds, and not on his or her relationship with others.
Reward power exists when person A has power over person B because A controls rewards that B wants. These rewards can cover a wide array of possibilities, including pay raises, promotions, desirable job assignments, more responsibility, new equipment, and so forth. Research has indicated that reward power often leads to increased job performance as employees see a strong performance-reward contingency (Shetty, 1978). However, in many organizations, supervisors and managers really do not control very many rewards. For example, salary and promotion among most blue-collar workers is based on a labor contract, not a performance appraisal.
Coercive power is based primarily on fear. Here, person A has power over person B because A can administer some form of punishment to B. Thus, this kind of power is also referred to as punishment power. As Kipnis (1976) points out, coercive power does not have to rest on the threat of violence. “Individuals exercise coercive power through a reliance upon physical strength, verbal facility, or the ability to grant or withhold emotional support from others. These bases provide the individual with the means to physically harm, bully, humiliate, or deny love to others.” Examples of coercive power in organizations include the ability (actual or implied) to fire or demote people, transfer them to undesirable jobs or locations, or strip them of valued perquisites. Indeed, it has been suggested that a good deal of organizational behavior (such as prompt attendance, looking busy, avoiding whistle-blowing) can be attributed to coercive, not reward, power. As Kipnis (1976) explains, “Of all the bases of power available to man, the power to hurt others is possibly the most often used, most often condemned and most difficult to control.”
Consequences of Power
We have seen, then, that at least five bases of power can be identified. In each case, the power of the individual rests on a particular attribute of the power holder, the follower, or their relationship. In some cases (e.g., reward power), power rests in the superior; in others (e.g., referent power), power is given to the superior by the subordinate. In all cases, the exercise of power involves subtle and sometimes threatening interpersonal consequences for the parties involved. In fact, when power is exercised, individuals have several ways in which to respond. These are shown in Figure 1.
If the subordinate accepts and identifies with the leader, their behavioral response will probably be one of commitment. That is, the subordinate will be motivated to follow the wishes of the leader. This is most likely to happen when the person in charge uses referent or expert power. Under these circumstances, the follower believes in the leader’s cause and will exert considerable energies to help the leader succeed.
A second possible response is compliance. This occurs most frequently when the subordinate feels the leader has either legitimate power or reward power. Under such circumstances, the follower will comply, either because it is perceived as a duty or because a reward is expected; but commitment or enthusiasm for the project is lacking. Finally, under conditions of coercive power, subordinates will more than likely use resistance. Here, the subordinate sees little reason—either altruistic or material—for cooperating and will often engage in a series of tactics to defeat the leader’s efforts.
In any situation involving power, at least two persons (or groups) can be identified: (1) the person attempting to influence others and (2) the target or targets of that influence. Until recently, attention focused almost exclusively on how people tried to influence others. More recently attention been given to how people try to nullify or moderate such influence attempts. In particular, we now recognize that the extent to which influence attempts are successful is determined in large part by the power dependencies of those on the receiving end of the influence attempts. In other words, all people are not subject to (or dependent upon) the same bases of power. What causes some people to be vulnerable to power attempts? At least three factors have been identified (Mitchell & Larson, 1988).
To begin, person B’s values can influence his susceptibility to influence. For example, if the outcomes that A can influence are important to B, then B is more likely to be open to influence than if the outcomes were unimportant. Hence, if an employee places a high value on money and believes the supervisor actually controls pay raises, we would expect the employee to be highly susceptible to the supervisor’s influence. We hear comments about how young people don’t really want to work hard anymore. Perhaps a reason for this phenomenon is that some young people don’t place a high value on those things (for example, money) that traditionally have been used to influence behavior. In other words, such complaints may really be saying that young people are more difficult to influence than they used to be.
Nature of Relationship
In addition, the nature of the relationship between A and B can be a factor in power dependence. Are A and B peers or superior and subordinate? Is the job permanent or temporary? A person on a temporary job, for example, may feel less need to acquiesce, because he won’t be holding the position for long. Moreover, if A and B are peers or good friends, the influence process is likely to be more delicate than if they are superior and subordinate.
Finally, a third factor to consider in power dependencies is counterpower. The concept of counterpower focuses on the extent to which B has other sources of power to buffer the effects of A’s power. For example, if B is unionized, the union’s power may serve to negate A’s influence attempts. The use of counterpower can be clearly seen in a variety of situations where various coalitions attempt to bargain with one another and check the power of their opponents.
Figure 2 presents a rudimentary model that combines the concepts of bases of power with the notion of power dependencies. As can be seen, A’s bases of power interact with B’s extent of power dependency to determine B’s response to A’s influence attempt. If A has significant power and B is highly dependent, we would expect B to comply with A’s wishes.
If A has more modest power over B, but B is still largely power dependent, B may try to bargain with A. Despite the fact that B would be bargaining from an unstable/weaker position, this strategy may serve to protect B’s interests better than outright compliance. For instance, if your boss asked you to work overtime, you might attempt to strike a deal whereby you would get compensatory time off at a later date. If successful, although you would not have decreased your working hours, at least you would not have increased them. Where power distribution is more evenly divided, B may attempt to develop a cooperative working relationship with A in which both parties gain from the exchange. An example of this position is a labor contract negotiation where labor-management relations are characterized by a balance of power and a good working relationship.
If B has more power than A, B will more than likely reject A’s influence attempt. B may even become the aggressor and attempt to influence A. Finally, when B is not certain of the power relationships, he may simply try to ignore A’s efforts. In doing so, B will discover either that A does indeed have more power or that A cannot muster the power to be successful. A good illustration of this last strategy can be seen in some companies’ responses to early governmental efforts to secure equal opportunities for minorities and women. These companies simply ignored governmental efforts until new regulations forced compliance.
Uses of Power
As we look at our groups and teams as well as our organizations, it is easy to see manifestations of power almost anywhere. In fact, there are a wide variety of power-based methods used to influence others. Here, we will examine two aspects of the use of power: commonly used power tactics and the ethical use of power.
Common Power Tactics in Organizations
As noted above, many power tactics are available for use. However, as we will see, some are more ethical than others. Here, we look at some of the more commonly used power tactics found in both business and public organizations (Pfeffer, 2011) that also have relevance for groups.
Controlling Access to Information
Most decisions rest on the availability of relevant information, so persons controlling access to information play a major role in decisions made. A good example of this is the common corporate practice of pay secrecy. Only the personnel department and senior managers typically have salary information—and power—for personnel decisions.
Controlling Access to Persons
Another related power tactic is the practice of controlling access to persons. A well-known factor contributing to President Nixon’s downfall was his isolation from others. His two senior advisers had complete control over who saw the president. Similar criticisms were leveled against President Reagan.
Selective Use of Objective Criteria
Very few questions have one correct answer; instead, decisions must be made concerning the most appropriate criteria for evaluating results. As such, significant power can be exercised by those who can practice selective use of objective criteria that will lead to a decision favorable to themselves. According to Herbert Simon, if an individual is permitted to select decision criteria, then that person needn’t care who actually makes the decision. Attempts to control objective decision criteria can be seen in faculty debates in a university or college over who gets hired or promoted. One group tends to emphasize teaching and will attempt to set criteria for employment dealing with teacher competence, subject area, interpersonal relations, and so on. Another group may emphasize research and will try to set criteria related to number of publications, reputation in the field, and so on.
Controlling the Agenda
One of the simplest ways to influence a decision is to ensure that it never comes up for consideration in the first place. There are a variety of strategies used for controlling the agenda. Efforts may be made to order the topics at a meeting in such a way that the undesired topic is last on the list. Failing this, opponents may raise a number of objections or points of information concerning the topic that cannot be easily answered, thereby tabling the topic until another day.
Using Outside Experts
Still another means to gain an advantage is using outside experts. The unit wishing to exercise power may take the initiative and bring in experts from the field or experts known to be in sympathy with their cause. Hence, when a dispute arises over spending more money on research versus actual production, we would expect differing answers from outside research consultants and outside production consultants. Most consultants have experienced situations in which their clients fed them information and biases they hoped the consultant would repeat in a meeting.
In some situations, the organizations own policies and procedures provide ammunition for power plays, or bureaucratic gamesmanship. For instance, a group may drag its feet on making changes in the workplace by creating red tape, work slowdowns, or “work to rule.” (Working to rule occurs when employees diligently follow every work rule and policy statement to the letter; this typically results in the organization’s grinding to a halt as a result of the many and often conflicting rules and policy statements.) In this way, the group lets it be known that the workflow will continue to slow down until they get their way.
Coalitions and Alliances
The final power tactic to be discussed here is that of coalitions and alliances. One unit can effectively increase its power by forming an alliance with other groups that share similar interests. This technique is often used when multiple labor unions in the same corporation join forces to gain contract concessions for their workers. It can also be seen in the tendency of corporations within one industry to form trade associations to lobby for their position. Although the various members of a coalition need not agree on everything—indeed, they may be competitors—sufficient agreement on the problem under consideration is necessary as a basis for action.
Ethical Use of Power
Several guidelines for the ethical use of power can be identified. These can be arranged according to our previous discussion of the five bases of power, as shown in Table 1. As will be noted, several techniques are available that accomplish their aims without compromising ethical standards. For example, a person using reward power can verify compliance with work directives, ensure that all requests are both feasible and reasonable, make only ethical or proper requests, offer rewards that are valued, and ensure that all rewards for good performance are credible and reasonably attainable.
|Table 1: The Ethical Use of Power
|Basis of Power
|Guidelines for Use
|Credit: Rice University/Openstax/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Source: Adapted from Yukl (2013).
Even coercive power can be used without jeopardizing personal integrity. For example, a manager can make sure that all employees know the rules and penalties for rule infractions, provide warnings before punishing, administer punishments fairly and uniformly, and so forth. The point here is that people have at their disposal numerous tactics that they can employ without abusing their power.
- Prior to reading the chapter, how did you define power? How might power-to, power-from-within and power-with make us think about power differently?
- What is the relationship between power and oppression?
- When you first joined your group, what assumptions did you make about the status of different members? Where did those assumptions come from?
- Identify five bases of power, and provide an example of each. Which base (or bases) of power do you feel would be most commonly found in groups?
- How can we exercise power ethically? What might be some best practices in the context of your group?
- Beebe, S.A., & Masterson, J.T. (2015). Communicating in small groups: Principles and practices (11th ed.). Pearson.
- Borman, E.G. (1989). Discussion and group methods: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). Harper and Row.
- Brilhart,J.K., & Galanes, G.J. (1997). Effective group discussion. Brown.
- French, J., & Raven, B. (1968). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander (Eds.), Group Dynamics. Harper & Row.
- Heider, J. (2005). The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age (1st ed.) Green Dragon.
- Homans, G.C. (1992). The human group. Harcourt Brace & World.
- Kipnis, D. (1976). The Powerholders. University of Chicago Press.
- Leaven Center (2003). Doing Our Own Work: A Seminar for Anti-Racist White Women. Visions, Inc. and the MSU Extension Multicultural Awareness Workshop.
- Mitchell, T. R., & Larson, J. (1988). People in organizations. McGraw-Hill.
- Shetty, Y. (1978). Managerial power and organizational effectiveness: A contingency analysis. Journal of Management Studies, 15, 178–181.
- Starhawk (1987). Truth or dare: Encounters with power authority, and mystery. Harper.
- Thai, N. D. & Lien, A. (2019). Respect for diversity. In L. A. Jason, O. Glantsman, J. F. O’Brien, & K. N. Ramian (Eds.), Introduction to Community Psychology: Becoming an agent of change. https://press.rebus.community/introductiontocommunitypsychology/chapter/respect-for-diversity/
- Tjosvold, D. (1985). Power and social context in the superior-subordinate interaction,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 281–293.
- Yukl, G. A. (2013). Leadership in 0rganizations (8th ed.). Pearson.
Author and Attribution
This remix comes from Dr. Jasmine Linabary at Emporia State University. This chapter is also available in her book: Small Group Communication: Forming and Sustaining Teams.
The introduction and the section “Defining Power” are adapted from Chapter 10 “Groups Communication” from Survey of Communication Study by Laura K. Hawn and Scott T. Paynton. This content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
The section “Relationship between Power and Status” is adapted from “Status” from An Introduction To Group Communication. This content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.
The sections “Bases of Power” and “Uses of Power” are adapted from “Organizational Power and Politics” Black, J.S., & Bright, D.S. (2019). Organizational behavior. OpenStax. https://openstax.org/books/organizational-behavior/. Access the full chapter for free here. The content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license.
The section “Understanding Power and Oppression” is adapted from Palmer, G.L, Ferńandez, J. S., Lee, G., Masud, H., Hilson, S., Tang, C., Thomas, D., Clark, L., Guzman, B., & Bernai, I. Oppresion and power. In L. A. Jason, O. Glantsman, J. F. O’Brien, & K. N. Ramian (Eds.), Introduction to Community Psychology. Pressbooks. https://press.rebus.community/introductiontocommunitypsychology/. The content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License.
Power over refers to decisions one individual or group maker which affect others.
Power from cooperation derived from our sense of connection, our bonding with other human beings, and with the environment.
The power of a strong individual in a group of equals, the power not to command, but to suggest and be listened to, to begin something and see it happen
exploited and victimized in a variety of ways by agents of oppression and/or systems and institutions; feeling disconnected from part of society or a group
benefits, advantages, and power that are gained based on perceived status or membership in a dominant group
a person’s perceived level of importance or significance within a particular context (whether deserved or not)
power is based on interpersonal attraction of one individual for another
power that comes from having a high level of knowledge within your area of expertise
Power based on position or authority, this is a formal form of power
power to give or offer some kind of reward (tangible or intangible)
Power based on the ability to punish or withhold from another
the extent to which an individual has other sources of power to buffer the effects of another’s power