What is power?

 Why do some people have so much power?
 
So often in a conflict, people are using an intangible force that can either make or break a relationship. This may be done consciously or unconsciously, but it is important we talk about what that intangible force is, and where it comes from.
 
The force is power.
 
Power is one of those things we talk about quite readily, as if it is an easily definable “thing”. But the reality is we can’t really package “power” up in a box and put a pretty bow on it, or hand it over as neat contained parcel. 
 
Some things have power, like a car, a firearm, or a moving fist but the consequence of that kind of “power” is fairly obvious – at impact , that power is likely to cause some kind of damage, assault or deadly injury.
 
But what about the other forms of power?
 
Here are some examples of people who are seen to “hold” power:

  • Employers/bosses
  • Family member(s)
  • Parents
  • Bank manager
  • President/prime minister
  • Lawyer
  • Judge
  • Police
  • Teachers
  • Politicians

Obviously, there are many more, but this is a good cross sample.
 
But each of these groups hold a different form of power. I mean we probably wouldn’t feel concerned about a teacher telling kids that they were going to keep all of the people with tuna sandwiches back at school for detention, would we?
 
Or would we?
 
Well we might if we were kids with tuna sandwiches , or one of the parents of these children who attend that school where the teacher has the power and authority. But as anyone else in the community or a bystander of that community, it probably wouldn’t affect us. How would we even know?
 
So why wouldn’t it affect us?
 
Because power needs to come from a source and it needs to impact us in some way. And that will depend on how observant or interested you are in the wider world around yourself.  
 
As human beings we attribute power in order to make sense of things and, in many instance to create order. 
 
No one gives parents “power” when their child is born. But we have it, from the get go.  This parental power might come from traditions, age, community and culture and, in most places we also see it embodied in law.
 
But certain laws override parental power like child protection laws, human rights law, criminal law etc. So where does power actually come from?
 
Different authors talk about different sources of power. In the work that I do, I embrace the sources of power defined by a leading academic called Bernard Mayer.[1]
 
Professor Mayer says basically that there are 13 sources of power

  • Formal authority
  • Legal or policy prerogative
  • Expertise/information
  • Association
  • Resources
  • Procedures
  • Rewards and sanctions
  • Nuisance
  • Habit- status quo
  • Morality
  • Personal characteristics
  • Definitional power
  • Perception of power

A lot of these are related and connected with each other. But for some clarity, I’ll give you the quick summary below here:
 
Formal authority is the kind of power that is “given” to a person or a group or organisation – like the government.  This ties into Legal or policy prerogative.
 
Legal or policy prerogative which is the power given in pieces of legislation – like police powers,

Expert/information power – we give “power” to people like doctors, lawyers, accountants etc. because they have studied at university and been educated for a number of years about their subject matter expertise.
 
Association power – some people have “power” by virtue of “hanging out” with other people with power. So, if we saw a President or Prime Minister walking down the street with other people, we would “believe” those people had the power to tell us what to do. This is also important in the business world, we assume people who “hang out” with business leaders are equally important and trustworthy.
 
Resource power – People who have created personal wealth/resources, such as money, like Bill Gates, Richard Branson have a certain type of  called resource “power”.  As we know, “resource power”  leverages the ability of some people to get or access certain things that people without that resource power could.
 
Procedures or procedural power – we see this all the time, court processes, government rules, school rules – anyone who uses “the rules or regulations” is using procedural power.
 
Rewards and sanctions – parents use this kind of power all the time “if you do this then you will get a treat” – or “if you do that again, you will get time out/grounded”
 
Nuisance - or as I like to call it “the power of persistence” – kids use persistence this all the time, every time a kid (or an adult) pesters you for something “please can I have” “please can I have” “please can I have” “please can I have” “please can I have” “please can I have” “please can I have”
They are using the “power” of nuisance/persistence 

This has a lot of power. Activists also use persistence as a way of effecting change, particularly with big corporations who are seeking to calm any bad publicity.
 
Habit-status quo as a certain power in certain contexts. For example, in some cultural groups, it holds a large sway because change is not seen as good. Also in some court jurisdictions, the court will look to a pattern or status quo to assess what would be a better decision making focus.  Families also use status quo, particularly conservative families – “all boys have short hair” so if they fifth boy in the family decides to grow their hair and dye it blue” that is a direct threat to the “power” of the status quo.
 
Morality in terms of power, also comes from a cultural/socio-religious context and usually has it’s roots deeps in history. “not having sex before marriage” doctrine is a very “powerful” statement for some people. Just those words have a moral “power”.

Personal characteristics – Our personal characteristics have a huge amount of power, depending on who you are.  Being white is power.  Being male is power, huge amounts of power.  Being of anglo-Saxon/celtic origin is power. Being middle class and educated is power.
 
If you have grown up as a white heterosexual male from a nice neighbourhood and educated in a private school and university then you have an enormous amount of power by virtue of those combined characteristics.
 
Another example of personal characteristic is the introvert/extrovert spectrum. The extrovert holds a lot of power in a loud world. Susan Cain, writes a very compelling book about this form of power in her book Quiet.
 
Definitional power – this is pretty much a power that we give to someone. It ties in a bit with formal authority but is also about title. As mother I could be seen with more “power” than my child because I am a mother, As a stepmother I have “less” power than the biological mother and so on. This also ties into the last category – perception of power.
 
Perception of power – Perception of power is one of the most poorly understood and grossly abused powers of all. I see this in “groups”.

The woman in the mother’s group who gossips and bitches about people has “perceived” power because she might spread rumours.

The business coach who has a large community who “might” malign you behind your back – has “perceived” power.
 
The bully in the playground who calls a kid names has “perceived power” (as well as other forms like personal characteristic power).
 
Police, lawyers, politicians, teachers, doctors, social security staff, bureaucrats and on and on it goes.
 
Even when we are feeling powerless, it is helpful to understand the sources of power, because some of us more “power” than others and many do not.
 
There is much to say about power, but it is important to understand the length and breadth of power as it pertains to our own individual circumstances, our relationships and importantly, our footprint as we tread this world.

[1] These can be found discussed in detail in Mayer, Bernard The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution, Jossey-Bass 2000, pp50-58.