The Powers of Change

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cartoon of Jesus Christ with a captive audience of The Hulk, Spiderman and Captain America: '...and that's how I saved the world!'

Creating successful, positive change is rewarding – it’s just the process of getting there that is testing, and makes you wish you had change agent superpowers!

But what is ‘power’, exactly? What kinds of powers are there, who has them and how can they be used?

Power is the ability to make things happen to achieve goals – and it can take a number of different forms.

Social psychologists French and Raven identified five types of power in their 1959 work ‘The bases of social power’:

  • Coercive
  • Reward
  • Legitimate
  • Referent
  • Expert

Raven later identified a sixth separate and distinct base of power – Informational.

In my view, these powers could also be characterised as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’ powers, and despite the apparent positivity and negativity of each, they all have a ‘light’ and ‘shadow’ (positive and negative) aspect.

Coercive power (‘stick’) is about punishment for non-compliance and the use of physical force, intimidation or other threats (consequences of non-compliance, such as fines, disapproval) to make someone do something against their will or intent. In its ‘light’ form, it could manifest as the protection of a child from harm or stopping a speeding driver. In its ‘shadow’ form, it could be used in political oppression. It may be intrinsic, as a result of physical size or strength, or an extrinsic power such as a weapon or threat of withholding a reward (extrinsic, because both can be lost by the coercer, eg. disarming them of their weapon, which then shifts the balance of power).

Reward power (‘carrot’) is the promise and/or ability to give other people what they want, or remove what they don’t want, in exchange for something you want them to do (light), and also the act or threat of punishment by withholding rewards (shadow). It can be intrinsic, such as withholding affection, or extrinsic, such as withholding money, promotion or a reward that depends on a third party.

Legitimate power (‘authority’) is invested in a societal position role (such as a judge, a King or Queen, a Chief Executive, a Minister), or derived from social rules and norms. Positional power can be used to uphold those norms (light), and it can also be abused (shadow). It is typically an extrinsic power ie. the weight of authority or influence travels with the position, not the person. ChangingMinds.org notes:

A common trap that people in such roles can fall into is to forget that people are obeying the position, not them. When they either fall from power or move onto other things, it can be a puzzling surprise that people who used to fawn at your feet no long do so.

Referent power (‘esteem’) is the ‘popularity power’, that of the charismatic and famous, those people are attracted to and want to be like, or be associated with – think rock stars, elite athletes, social leaders, actors. Referent power is also held by those who have earned respect from others for their integrity, contributions and personal qualities. This power is about social status or standing, and can sometimes overlap with legitimate/positional power, such as in the case of charismatic leaders or political figures. Raven and French offer the following caution as to which powers are in play:

We must try to distinguish between referent power and other types of power which might be operative at the same time. If a member is attracted to a group and he conforms to its norms only because he fears ridicule or expulsion from the group for nonconformity, we would call this coercive power. On the other hand if he conforms in order to obtain praise for conformity, it is a case of reward power.

Referent power can be used as a ‘currency’ to draw attention to issues and causes (light), and it can also be abused for personal advantage or used for coercion by socially excluding others (shadow). It is typically an intrinsic power embodied in a person, although it is also extrinsic in that it is granted to someone by public opinion, and if those with it fall from favour then the power vanishes.

Expert power (‘know-how’) is held by those with knowledge and skill that someone else requires. It can be used to solve problems and determine options for action (light), or to obfuscate and confuse (shadow). This power is intrinsic, although its value can diminish as a result of extrinsic circumstances eg. if the need for that expertise declines.

Informational power (‘know-what’) is possession of or access to valuable information that, if it is accepted, may persuade people to change their opinions and/or behaviours. It could be used for awareness and empowerment (light), or with the selective use, concealment or framing of information in a certain way, it can be used for shaping behaviour that supports a hidden agenda, propaganda etc (shadow). It is intrinsic if guarded and used to control, but extrinsic in that competing sources of information may be able to displace it.

In my experience, there are two other forms of power that don’t fall within French and Raven’s types:

Connection (‘know-who’)

The power of weak or ‘loose’ ties (acquaintances, friends of friends, online connections) as social glue has been well documented since the 1970s.

Knowing who is who, who does what, what they are interested in, what they are looking for, and who can help you or others, enables matching of ‘offers and needs’ and is very powerful in making things happen, especially where there is little money.

This is, in fact, how informal economies work – through social capital (see Trust) and gift culture. It is connection that has, among many examples in the digital era, powered the emergence of the sharing or collaborative economy (see Shareable, Collaborative Consumption and The Mesh) and augmented the speed and reach of popular uprisings such as the Arab Spring.

‘Connection’ power has been defined elsewhere as ‘access to others who can provide rewards or sanctions’, but my interpretation here is different.

Trust (‘relationships’)

If people know and trust you, it means you can Get Stuff Done. It is the power of relationships, which was identified in a survey of leaders as the single most important power that they currently leverage with their superiors and their peers, and which is seen as the most important power to cultivate in the future. Underpinning the emergence of the sharing or collaborative economy is the idea of ‘trust between strangers’. Reputation, a measure of how much people trust you, is literally a new currency in the digital age, expanding circles of trust and access to resources, skills and contacts far beyond those which could previously only be cultivated through in-person interaction.

So maybe you’re not in a position of influence in your organisation or group – but it doesn’t mean you can’t be influential:

…relying on legitimate power as your only way to influence others isn’t enough. To be a leader, you need more than this – in fact, you may not need legitimate power at all. Anyone is capable of holding power and influencing others: you don’t need to have an important job title or a big office. But if you recognize the different forms of power, you can avoid being influenced by those who use the less effective types of power – and you can focus on developing expert and referent power for yourself. This will help you become an influential and positive leader.

In fact, in the long run, it is the intrinsic, personal powers that are the most effective, not rewards, coercion or pulling rank – even the most powerful positional leaders must operate from this basis if they are to be successful:

Paradoxically, unless it is well supported by other forms, legitimate power lacks higher-order legitimacy.  Lack of such legitimacy is why organisational hierarchies are often ignored…employees simply fail to volunteer referent power to those occupying superior positions in the organisational hierarchies.

So never assume you are powerless or don’t have as much power as someone else. Do a stocktake of the powers at your disposal – these may be powers you have, or those others who are willing to support you have. For example, you may have the best plan or idea, but someone else may be your best messenger. Assess what you already have and do well, stick to the ‘light’ side with your use of power, and cultivate those powers you’re not as strong on yet. Know the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of of power, and when it is appropriate to use them.

index card with Venn diagram - circle A 'what your job description says' nested inside circle B 'what you can do'

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Even superheroes don’t have all the powers they need for what they must do. Superman was stopped in his tracks by Kryptonite. Batman couldn’t turn invisible. Spiderman couldn’t breathe under water. They can all do different things well because of their unique abilities, but for certain tasks, they too need the abilities of others.

If you’ve ever hit a brick wall or ended up down a cul-de-sac with your change efforts, feeling powerless and frustrated, remember – there is more than one kind of power that you can leverage.

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  3. […] The word ‘Machiavellian’ is derived from Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was an Italian politician and philosopher. He was a strategic adviser to the Florentine Republic in the early sixteenth century, and author of Il Principe (‘The Prince’), a treatise on how to acquire and use power. […]

  4. […] what difference could it make to your work if you could find, engage with and influence the influencers in your organisation or […]

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