Power can be described as the capacity of an individual or a group (which may lie dormant) to exert their will over another or others (French and Raven, 2001) or influence the goals of a relationship. Power is not a characteristic of any one individual, rather, it is defined in terms of relationships and transactions between people. Power is crucial to the achievement of individual goals, the resolution of conflicts, and to communication competency within a group.

Power can be understood within two basic dimensions, a content dimension and a relational dimension. The content dimension lends the understanding of what is being said and the relational dimension shows the meaning behind the words and how power is transmitted throughout. Power is not dichotomous. No one person is entirely powerless or powerful in any relationship or position.

Power is constantly switching hands within a conversation or relationship. Different ways that people give up their power, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are by being overly polite, backing down from an argument, using a title (such as Doctor or Professor) when addressing another, allowing interruptions when speaking, and clothing choice.[1]

Power resources in interpersonal communication

A power resource is anything that enables individuals to achieve their goals, assists others to achieve their goals, or interferes with the goal attainment of others.[1] There are several different types of power resources:

  • Legitimate Authority Power - based on institutional norms and practices and from historical-legal traditions.[2] A legitimate authority is someone who is perceived to have a right to direct others behavior because of his or her position, title, role, experience, or knowledge. The strength of legitimate authority can be seen in everyday experiences. No one can actually possess legitimate authority, it is given and conferred by other people. Examples of this are police officers, teachers, and parents. In the case of parents, their children will tend to obey the authority of their parents in their younger years, but after reaching adulthood, they might consider their parent to not have the authority over them that they once had. Blindly disobeying legitimate authority as well as blindly obeying them can both be dangerous. This is where competence comes into play. A competent communicator must develop a skeptical view and be able distinguish between inappropriate and appropriate use of authority. Five elements of ethical criteria determine when we should comply and defy authority. Those 5 elements are: respect, honesty, fairness, choice and responsibility.[1]
  • Expertise Power based on one person perceiving that the other person has expert knowledge of a given subject and is a recognized authority in a given situation. Expertise power is similar to that of information power. However, expertise power occurs when one in power has the information and understands just how to put it into practice, whereas informational power is just having the actual information. So expertise power would be "information plus know-how." For one to be considered an expert there must be important conditions met. One, they have to be dependable and two, they have to have adequate knowledge on the topic at hand. Examples of expertise power would be carpenters, financial advisers, and hairstylists. Usually, these people have received proper education and training in their specific field. These are the individuals who have learned the correct information and know how to apply it to help others.[1]
  • Information Power derived from possession of important information at a critical time when such information is necessary to organizational functions. Information that is restricted and scarce can be a powerful resource. Information power occurs when an individual has information that others find useful or helpful. However, the information has to be found useful by others in order for this to be an empowering resource. Having information that others do not find helpful is not considered information power. The information can't be easily or readily available. This is usually an empowering power resource. An example would be teachers. They have information that students are required to learn that is not necessarily easily accessed. The students are limited by their background and experience, therefore the teachers are empowered by the information they possess.[1]
  • Reward and Punishment Power (Coercive Power) Reward and punishment is a power source that acts as a double-edged sword by either assisting an individual in achieving their goal or interfering with their goal. Examples of these can be found in both the outside working industry or as close as the family environment. Parents tend to use money, freedom, and privacy as rewards and punishment. Employers tend to use bonuses, salaries, hiring and firings as rewards and punishment. Punishment can only be an effective power source depending upon the degree of certainty. For example if multiple verbal warnings have been administered yet no action has followed through, those threats will eventually have no influence or become belittled. If, however, a punishment is taken too far, its nature of coerciveness and dominance could lead to a scarred relationship between individuals. The object of punishment should be to positively change behavior from antisocial to pro-social. Rewards can induce a double edged sword effect by either promoting competition or cooperation. If rewards are fairly distributed to individuals in a situation such as a work environment, cooperation can result. However, if rewards are handed out like candy, competition can vigorously grow, resulting in greed and selfishness. In order to promote cooperation, rewards need to be explicitly declared, fairly distributed, and bribes should be avoided.
  • Charisma Power Oftentimes others are viewed as powerful based on their physical appearance, attractiveness, personality, attitude, or their ability to engage in audience. One who is said to be powerful based on these qualities is someone who has charisma. An individual may find one who possesses these attributes to be powerful because he or she finds those attributes essential to accomplishing a task or wishes that he or she also possessed these attributes. Individuals with charisma are not entitled to power; however, their power is derived from the support of their peers.[1]
  • Referent Power The desire and ability to emulate others.[2]
  • Value Power Influence based on the basis of attraction to values.[2]


  • Dominance - the exercise of power over others that is typically associated with a negative view of power and is competitive and hierarchical. Dominance is a competitive, win-lose transaction. This form of power results from dichotomous, either-or thinking. Those who try to dominate see power as an active effort to advance personal goals at the expense of others.
  • Prevention - competitive and hierarchical power used to thwart the influence of others. This is the flip of dominance. Prevention power is competitive. Preventive power is self-protective.
  • Empowerment - power derived from enhancing the capabilities and the influences of individuals and groups. It is power used positively and constructively; it's a cooperative form of power. Empowerment is proactive.

Power Distance Dimension

Power-distance dimensions are cultural variations in the acceptability of unequal distribution of power in relationships, institutions, and organizations.

Within the power-distance dimension are two general levels: low power distance and high power distance.

Low-power distance cultures do not focus on status in the ranking of people; people see everyone as equals. This type of culture is in a sense, a horizontal culture, where there is equal distribution in power. However, there are still downfalls to this type of culture. Although this may seem the fairest type of culture, sometimes this is not the best decision. It does not always suit well with big businesses. Germany and France highly utilize this type of culture within their businesses. Some other countries that use this type of equal culture are the United States, Sweden, Austria, Israel, New Zealand, and Denmark.[1]

High-power distance cultures, in a sense, are the opposite of low-power distance. High-power distance cultures separate people based on a social hierarchy. The higher status one has, the more respect and authority that person has; this type of culture is a vertical one. It is a culture where people do not seem to question authority. Some main countries that partake in this type of lifestyle are Japan, India, Guatemala, the Philippines, Mexico, Singapore, and Hong Kong. High-power distance cultures are very often associated with individualistic, masculine, and low-context cultures.[1]

A ranking of countries from those with a high-PD culture toward those with a low-PD culture: Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, Philippines, Mexico, Venezuela, Arab countries, Ecuador, Indonesia, India, West Africa, Yugoslavia, Singapore, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, Columbia, El Salvador, Turkey, Belgium, East Africa, Peru, Thailand, Chile, Portugal, Uruguay, Greece, South Korea, Iran, Taiwan, Spain, Pakistan, Japan, Italy, Argentina, South Africa, Jamaica, United States, Canada, Netherlands, Australia, Costa Rica, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, Israel, Austria.[1]


By observing several indicators it can be determined who holds the power in a situation.

General indicators of power -

This involves who can define others. People who are able to label another group of people have the most power when comparing the two. An example of this would be the Nazis who labeled the Jewish people. Once they were labeled, they were seen as subordinate in Nazi Germany. In general indicators of power, there is also the "principle of least interest." This principle states that in a relationship, whoever cares less about maintaining the relationship has the most power. The one who wants the relationship to continue and get stronger will obviously put more effort into it. People do not assume positions of power, they are given to them by others and that is who becomes the leader and whose decisions will be followed.

Verbal indicators of power - powerful speaking involves definite declarative statements while non-powerful speaking shows a lack of self-confidence.

  • Hedges: stating an opinion without trying to take control, which lessens the overall impact of the message. Ex. “Perhaps we could….” “It might be a good idea if….” “I’m a little worried that this might not work”
  • Hesitations: stunts the overall flow of the statement. Ex. “Gosh, uh, shouldn’t we, um, act now?” “Well, um, the central point is…”
  • Tag Question: calls into question the statement it is attached to. Creates the ability to present opinion without claiming total ownership Ex. “Dinner will be served at 6 o’clock, okay?” “This is a bad idea, don’t you think so?”
  • Disclaimers: Frames a message in a negative light. Ex. “You may disagree with me, but…” “This idea is probably very silly, but…”
  • Excessive Politeness: Adding extremes to the amount of courtesy that’s being exhibited. Ex. “I’m extremely sorry to interrupt your conversation, but…”[1]

Nonverbal indicators of power -

  • Clothing: Those who dress more professionally or more confidently tend to be the most powerful. An example would be those who wear a suit to work or dress more trendy and confidently.
  • Touch: Someone who is more powerful will touch the one who is less powerful. For example, the CEO of a company may be more likely to extend his or her hand for a handshake than the one interviewing for the job.
  • Eye contact: Eye contact is one way of displaying power as well as confidence. One who stares more freely at another when having a conversation is likely to be the most powerful in that relationship.
  • Space: Those who are the most powerful have the most space when interacting with a group of people. Space may not necessarily refer to personal distance. Space could also mean territoriality or acknowledging the information or resources possessed by the one who holds the power.

Competent communication and balancing power

Balancing power as much as possible between the person or persons within a relationship can become a struggle to prevent another person from dominating. There are several methods to combat this:

  • Coalitions - temporary alliances to increase relative power and control a decision or take action
  • Defiance - purposeful noncompliance
  • Resistance - ambiguous noncompliance

Coalitions can balance the power in a group when the relatively powerless form a coalition and increase their strength, but they can create power imbalances when the more powerful group members move to consolidate their strength by banding together against he weaker members. They create a "them-versus-us" mentality with a family situation, but creates a cohesion within political situations.

Defiance is a last resort to counteract a greater power within a group or relationship and can accrue a sense of unity within the group between the defiant members. However defiance can risk the relationship in the group and put strains

Resistance is often more advantageous than defiance due to its more subtle nature. More covert actions against a dominant power could result in a less radical shift in status quo. There are many strategies for successful resistance, some of which are when members purposefully act uneducated in the field of interest, lose interest in the subject, and fake forgetfulness.

All of these techniques provide ways to competently balance power within a group equally among members.


'Politics' is the way that power is embodied in influence tactics to achieve desired outcomes - power in action.[3] Empirical studies of power focus on macro/structural bases of power, and by contrast studies of politics focus on the micro processes of individual behaviour.[4]

Dawson[5] divides politics into external and internal political activity, both of which involve decision making and agenda shaping. External political activity includes the lobbying of politicians, strategic alliances, market positioning, and stakeholder and competitor discussions. Internal political activity includes consultation, negotiation, conflicts and resistance within and between groups (such as trade unions and staff associations) and individuals. Buchanan[6] argues that political behaviour is about more than coping with contexts of conflict and resistance.

Buchanan[4] provided a candidate list of political behaviours. The more common political behaviours identified included: building a network of useful contacts, using key players to support initiatives, making friends with power brokers, bending the rules to fit the situation and self-promotion. Similarly, it was suggested that less common behaviours included: finding someone else to blame, claiming credit for the work of others, using social settings to discover opinions, using others to deliver bad news, deliberately withholding information, highlighting others errors and flaws, using delaying tactics, breaking the rules and compromising now to win later.

Political behaviour is more than merely self-interested and can be employed to achieve organisational as well as individual purposes[4] although the former receives less attention in the literature.

See also

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Rothwell, J. Dan (2010). In the company of others : an introduction to communication (3rd ed. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533630-6. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Bennis, Warren. (1997) Managing People Is Like Herding Cats (pgs 169-170)
  3. Buchanan, D., & Badham, R. 2008. Power, Politics and Organizational Change. London: Sage.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Buchanan, D. 2008. "You stab my back, I'll stab yours: Management experience and perceptions of organization political behaviour". British Journal of Management, 19: 49-64.
  5. Dawson, P. 1996. Teaching and Quality: Change in the Workplace. London: International Thompson Business Press.
  6. Buchanan, D. 1999. The logic of political action: an experiment with the epistemology of the particular. British Journal of Management, 10 (Special): S73-S88.
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