Some people use fear and coercion to get their way. We listen to and obey others because they are esteemed, looked up to, and sought out. Still others get their way because we believe what they say. These people are exercising power; their relationship with others is asymmetrical.
Many definitions of power have been proposed. These include:
- The ability to limit the choices of another.
- Carrying out one's will despite resistance from others.
- The use of constraint (physical or psychological) in pursuit of one's goal.
- The desire for influence; imposing your will on others or the environment
However, the definition that seems to be most precise, and provides the most insight is:
It is instructive to recognize that power is an attribute of the relationship and not of the person. To better understand this, I like to imagine a powerful and generally feared boss standing in a long line at the state motor vehicle registration agency. While at work this person is the boss but here he or she is just as powerless as anyone else, having to wait a very long time to talk to a junior level clerk to get the car registered. Here the asymmetry is clear, the boss waits while the clerk takes their good old time and holds all the cards. In this relationship, the boss has submitted to the clerk.
The asymmetries of power may not be expressed unless goals are in conflict. In other words, a gentle giant is not likely to harm you unless you provoke him into a conflict.
Power can be exercised from these three basic postures:
- Dominance—The ability to inflict harm, also known as aggressive coercion, or
- Stature—The ability to provide help, also known as leverage, or
- Influence—altering people's beliefs.
The first two power bases are the proverbial “carrot and stick”. The third is an implicit and pervasive method used to alter people's behavior without requiring their obedience or submission
Power can be characterized, measured, and compared based in the following four characteristics:
- Base is the source of power, such as fighting ability or control over sexual access, favors, affiliation, or other sources of leverage. The base is some form of either dominance or stature.
- Means refers to the instruments of power, such as threat or reward, and it is the way the relationship is negotiated,
- Amount refers to the magnitude of power, how it may vary with the context of a situation, (e.g. within a territory) and how often it is exercised,
- Scope refers to the range of power and it describes the types of behaviors the powerful agent “A” can evoke from the subordinate “B”
These characteristics provide a means to measure and describe why, how, when, and to what extent power occurs.
The outcome of a competition is determined by dominance, leverage (stature), and motivation. Power dynamics only enter a contest when the goals of the participants conflict. When resources are abundant free and peaceful access is likely and competition is unlikely. If scarce resources are concentrated or positioned so they can be defended, then conflict is likely, and the resources are distributed according to the power of those contending for them. If resources are limited but not defensible, then tolerance and sharing are more likely than conflict.
Power can be aggression-based (known as aggressive coercion or dominance) or dependence-based (i.e. based on stature or leverage). If person “B” depends on person “A” for resources, knowledge, affection, praise, approval, companionship, rewards, or anything else, then “A” has dependence-based power over “B”. The amount of power “A” has over “B” in this relationship is related to how much “B” values the resources controlled by “A”, and the availability of substitutes or alternative sources.
Personality is an important instrument of power. Although power is defined in terms of a relationship, we consistently regard some people as powerful individuals and others as weak. Personal attributes that contribute to powerful personalities include physical size and strength, especially including tall men, because strength supports the association of power with dominance. Increasingly, mental resources including precision, acuity, charm, apparent honesty, humor, sincerity, and solemnity are important. Communicating thoughts lucidly and eloquently contributes to the powerful personality. It is also important to convey a supreme certainty in your own beliefs, including the ability to assert the unknown with great conviction. A mixture of warmth and firmness projects power and influence. Rituals, including meetings, audiences, pageantry, and applause also enhance the powerful image.
Power can be signaled by speaking in a softer voice while expecting everyone to listen. Power and status identifications are communicated in other ways through the voice channel. Specifically, the lower frequency range of the voice, in a band of audio frequencies below 500 hertz, communicates social status relations between partners. When people are conversing, the lower status person will adjust the timbre of his or her voice in this range to accommodate that of the higher ranking person.
Keeping cool while others are demanding, dependent, or chaotic presents a powerful image. It sends the message “they need me more than I need them, I am self-reliant and in control.” Keeping calm in the face of another's anger maintains control in a conflict. Going a step further, demonstrating indifference towards others humiliates them while it distinguishes and distances the self-reliant and powerful personality. Indifference creates a mixture of fear an awe that enhances the powerful personality.
Women often employ alliances with other women to attain power from a group defense that goes beyond what they can attain individually from their own smaller physical stature.
Asymmetry is power, and several symbols emphasize the asymmetry of a relationship. Height, including tall people, high ground, top hats, and topological relief, are symbols of power. Short men have to work harder to command authority and for their power to become recognized. Pageantry, ceremony, celebration, and other events that draw positive attention to the celebrant and separate them from the crowd emphasize an asymmetrical relationship that enhances a powerful image. Uniforms and costumes that distinguish roles and powerful positions create a visual image of the asymmetry that emphasizes the power of the position. Examples include military officer's uniforms, judge's robes, and the robes worn by religious leaders. This also includes a man's suit, especially when wearing a power tie. Official seals, such as the seal of the president, also emphasize the power that comes with the position. Flags, crests, engraved stationary, and particular music, such as “hail to the chief” also emphasize the power of the position. Monograms, and customized jewelry and accessories also emphasize uniqueness and asymmetry.
The English language use of the word “authority” has two very different meanings. One meaning describes power—such as the right to control, command, or determine—and the other described expertise—an accepted source of information. People identify authority with legitimacy; authority exists when people voluntarily obey those with positional power, such as government leaders, officers of the law and courts, and superiors within an organizational hierarchy. Authority is a belief in legitimacy measured by voluntary compliance.
A recognized authority can obtain power from one or more of the three basic postures of dominance, stature, and influence:
- Positional power often legitimizes the use of coercive sanctions. For example, your boss can give you unfavorable assignments, fire you, or refuse to give you a raise or promotion. Police officers are authorized to make arrests. This provides the authority with power based on dominance.
- A true expert derives authority from the unique information, skill, or talent they command. For example, Dr. Paul Ekman is a widely recognized authority on the topic of basic emotions. His authority attains power based on his stature rather than on dominance.
- An influential authority gains voluntary compliance. Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, elder statesmen, and various bloggers lack authority and positional power, but they exercise considerable power through the influence they have on people's beliefs.
A fear of authority arises when we are attracted to strong figures who we do not believe are legitimate. Also, we resent people who place status above duty; you have to do the work.
Many organizations recognize some form of hierarchical structure. The military has an obvious, strict, and formal hierarchy, with very clear lines of command, status, authority, and control that are regularly reinforced. Business organizations typically have a top executive, an executive management layer, various other layers of management, and finally the non-management personnel. Responsibility and authority is defined and positional power is unevenly distributed. Even the local bike club has a president and executive board. In almost any group there is inevitably a leader, either formally or informally recognized. This is inherently an asymmetrical, and therefore power-based structure. With abuses of power so prevalent, why are hierarchies so common? The answer is that hierarchies promote social order because they are efficient at making decisions and settling disputes. The challenge within such a structure is balance power to avoid abuses. In a democracy, the people form an alliance that provides power sufficient to remove unhelpful leaders. However, most organizations are not democracies.
Power and Injustice
Power breads injustice. The asymmetry of power upsets the balance of justice. When peers disagree the issue is often settled by reason or compromise. When the powerless disagree with the powerful, the powerful prevail regardless of reason, facts, or justice.
- “Of the infinite desires of man, the chief are the desires for power and glory” ~ Bertrand Russell
- “The love of power is the love of ourselves” ~ William Hazlitt
- “The injustice of society is that the subordinate must make sense of what power is” ~ Hegel.
- “Liberty finally exists when the recognition I give you does not subtract something from myself ”~ Richard Sennett
- “The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power, and the bonobos resolve power issues with sex.” ~ Frans de Waal
- “The right of nature . . . is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature.” ~ Thomas Hobbes
- “Innovation creates opportunity.”~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “Quite amazingly, those who have the most power in our society almost never talk about it and even more amazingly induce many of the rest of us not to recognize it either.” ~ Jean Baker Miller
- "The power of love must overcome the love of power." ~
Beyond Dominance: the importance of leverage, Rebecca J. Lewis, The Quarterly Review of Biology, volume 77 (2002), pages 149–164. Published by the University of Chicago Press
Chapais B. 1991. Primates and the origins of aggression, power, and politics among humans. Pages 190-218 in Understanding Behavior: What Primate Studies Tell Us About Human Behavior, edited by J D Loy and C B Peters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Humiliation and Assistance: Telling the Truth About Power, Telling a New Story, by Linda M. Hartling, Wellesley College
The Power Principle: Influence with Honor, by Blaine Lee
The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work, by Peter Block
The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
The Anatomy of Power, by John Kenneth Galbraith
Authority, by Richard Sennett
The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, by William Ury
Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, by Dale Peterson, Richard Wrangham
Our Inner Ape, by Frans De Waal
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
The Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, Chapter X
A nonverbal signal in voices of interview partners effectively predicts communication accommodation and social stature perceptions, by Stanford W. Gregory, Stephen Webster