The Hidden Dragon of Power in Relationships

“Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

Margaret Thatcher


At a family get-together, a discussion started about where power lies between specific couples – some in the public eye, some within the family.  It was a light conversation and later it got me thinking!  And this blog is the result of that thinking.


This blog is geared towards anyone who relates with other individuals – OK, that means everyone!


Just being aware of and acknowledging the nature of the power relationship increases your options.  I’m all for increasing choice.  And the importance of mutual respect, trust and communication because they reduce the potential for problems arising in the first place.


Now …


What do I mean by ‘power’?


Stephen Covey defined power as the


“faculty or capacity to act, the strength and potency to accomplish something.  It is the vital energy to make choices and decisions.  It also includes the capacity to overcome deeply embedded habits and to cultivate higher, more effective ones.” (p109 of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’).


He continues on page 111 to say


“Your power lies somewhere between immobilisation or being a puppet pulled by someone else’s strings to high proactivity, the power to act according to your own values instead of being acted upon by other people and circumstances.”


Furthermore, power can be:


–  power for something
–  power to do something
–  power over something


and a person can use his/her power in all three ways.



Now there’s another thing about power. Power may be given by other people to you – and, of course, they can take it away too!  Such external power includes:


–  expert power: others see you as having some special knowledge or skill
–  information power: others believe you have resources of information which will be useful to them
–  legitimate power: others accept you ought to have power over them because of your position.  This is sometimes called institutional power.
–  coercive power: the ability to mete out negative consequences or remove positive ones
–  reward power: the ability to deliver positive consequences or remove negative ones
–  referent power: others identify with you or want to be like you
–  systemic power: eg unspoken and overt connections with those possessing the relevant power base



On the other hand, personal or internal power comes from within you eg self-belief, the ability to persuade, competence or expertise.  The importance of this type of power is that it cannot be taken away by others.  You consciously or unconsciously choose to keep or give away, to use or not use your power.  You may feel you don’t have any power even though that is not true.


A number of factors can diminish our personal power as well as increase it:



Factors that can raise personal power include:

Factors that can decrease personal power include:

–  recognise that it’s only your own thinking that impacts your level of power
–  thinking positively about yourself
–  dealing with stress
–  making choices
–  facing your fears
–  believing in yourself
–  dealing with negative feelings
–  commitment to yourself and life in general
 –  believing your negative thoughts reflect reality
–  stress
–  illness
–  depression
–  tiredness
–  low self-esteem
–  being frightened of risk
–  being negative
–  lack of confidence
–  not being sure about yourself or what you believe in or care about




So what are the consequences of power?


The existence of power in its different guises leads to people responding to it.  Let’s consider some examples:


–  having power: people vary in their responses to having power.  Some relish and strive for it. Others feel guilty about acquiring and using it.  Yet others fear it even if they possess it.  How do you feel about power and its use?

–  feelings of powerlessness: when office politics is being discussed I’m sure you’ve heard some staff say ‘I feel powerless.  Things around here affect me and my future, yet I have little to no say in them.”  You can feel powerless in response to situations when you see no connection between what happens to you and your own actions.  Yet there always is an interaction.  If you don’t feel you have any power, it is possible you may compensate by going over the top or abrogate responsibility altogether.  If you tap into a past experience of feeling powerful this may help you gain a better balance, and gain confidence in handling the issue in hand.

–  competing for power itself is an institutional staple.  Always has been and always will be.  Sometimes it adds value, other times it adds costs – for individuals, the organisation and its customers.

–  use of power:  getting things done and making decisions are important to any organisation. The ideal is to get power to serve the organisation rather than hidden – or not so hidden – personal agendas.  So power, the ability to get things done, can be dangerous in the wrong hands.  “All power tends to corrupt”, said Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

–  people’s thinking about power: people’s conscious and unconscious thinking about power impacts their responses with others, one-to-one and groups.  For example, if they think that their line manager has the sort of power, which means they cannot make comments or put forward alternative ideas, that person is unlikely to say anything, even when asked.  Another person who has the same line manager may think the line manager’s power is such that comments and alternative ideas are appropriate, even necessary – and so they voice them.


So what?!


We’ve looked at what power is, different types of power and some of the consequences of power.  If I was in your shoes I would be thinking “so what? How can I use this information?


My response to that question is that by increasing your awareness about and acknowledging the nature of power in a situation, you will increase your options.  You are more likely to:


–  truly appreciate the nature of power and how it’s made up by people’s way of thinking
–  feel calmer and grounded
–  be less defensive
–  give yourself time before you respond – and, therefore, override any habitual responses


Different levels of perceived power between two people or two groups doesn’t have to be a problem.  It’s a matter of communication and respect from both sides – and trust.  The problems arise when, for instance, the two parties aren’t transparent about their expectations and/or don’t stay aware of what they need/want.