Power in Partnerships and when it goes bad.

Power is a bit of a taboo subject, we don’t really talk about it. But when you boil things down to what matters in any human connection, power really does count. This is particularly true in a partnership. If you’ve got big differences in how much power sits with people around the table, there’s a chance you’ll to run into some difficulties* (*unless you do something to manage it).

Why is Power Important? At its most basic, power is about the ability to do what you want to do, or get others to do it for you.

So, if you agree with that logic, the more power you have the greater your ability is to have your objectives delivered.

Think about this for a moment, then apply it to the situation of a partnership. A group of people from different places trying to achieve a common outcome (hopefully). I say hopefully (in brackets) because sometimes people are ‘forced’ into being a partnership, it’s not always voluntary…

Applying the logic of power = ability to get your own objectives delivered, in a partnership this can have a big influence, especially if  membership of the partnership isn’t voluntary.  I’m sure you can imagine the scenario of someone on a partnership agonising over this dilemma… “I’ve got the power to make this happen, but do my personal (organisational) objectives sit above those of the partnership?”  Hmmmm…Tricky…

The point I’m getting at here is that power is important and if you don’t recognise and manage it, there could be problems.

Where Does Power Come From? There’s plenty of material explaining the different sources of power, lots of it these days wrapped up in the language of leadership style.

I’d recommend sticking with some of the original work that was done (in the 1950s) by Social Psychologists John French and Bertram Raven. This explanation, ‘French and Raven’s Five Forms of Power‘ on the Mind Tools website is a useful, easy to digest explanation.

Inevitably things have moved on a bit since the 1950’s and now people talk about up to 8 sources of power, or Power Bases. I’ve tried to summarise the range of Power Bases in this scruffy drawing. (Apparently, scruffy = ‘hand drawn artisan charm’, yes someone said that about one of my drawings. I was chuffed)


What I’ve tried to illustrate here are the broad differences between Hard / Positional Power and Soft / Personal Power.

There’s a view held by many people that Soft Power is more effective than Hard Power. This is because people will do things for you because they like and respect you. This is more desirable than people doing things because they have to or because you threaten them in some way. The soft power commitment to do something ‘for you’ is considered to be deeper and lasts longer.

It’s not as clear cut as that, but I’m sure you get the gist. I’ve previously written about the idea of Malicious Compliance (link here) which gives a flavour of what happens when people do things because they ‘have to’.

Just in case you can’t make any sense of my drawing the following are considered to be ‘sources of power’ – on an arbitrary scale of Hard to Soft.

  • LEGITIMATE. The Law/Position gives me authority. I am the Boss/Commissioner/Inspector/Queen/King etc.
  • COERCIVE. I have the power to cause you pain or damage you.
  • REWARD. I have the power to give you good things.
  • RESOURCE. I have power over access to things you need.
  • CONNECTION. I know powerful people.
  • INFORMATION. I know things that are useful to you.
  • EXPERT. I can do things that would be helpful to you.
  • REFERENT. You like me as a person.

This is only scratching the surface of power and how it’s used. Any one of these ‘Powers’ could be used individually, or in combination, for good or bad purposes.

Its worth a look at the work of John French and Bertram Raven (link here) if you want to get deeper into Power. 

When Partnership Power Goes Bad. The list below is a reflection on when power in partnerships can cause problems:

  • My organisation controls the money.
  • My organisation has significant resources and we administer the partnership.
  • The Partnership meets at my premises.
  • We use ‘clever’ language and jargon specific to our sector.
  • I’m paid to be there, some people in the room are volunteers or service users.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to connect what is in the list above to the French and Raven Power Bases. Have a go, you might not have realised just how powerful you are in a partnership.

The problems created by a power difference are usually for the people with the least power, and often they don’t speak up about it… for very good reasons. Speaking truth to power is as much of a challenge for people in partnerships as it if for individuals. I wrote about this a while back in 3 linked posts, here’s the first one: Speaking Truth to Power Part 1. 2500 years of Shooting the Messenger. 

So what can you do about Power Differences? These are only suggestions, and I’m open to ideas on what else could be done to reduce or manage any power imbalances in partnerships. Thanks to Anne Collis and Rachel Rowlands for conversations that have informed this.

  • Be aware that power has an influence over what happens.
  • A big difference in power can cause difficulties.
  • Try to manage the difference.
  • Structural things like transparent decision making and  ‘rules’ on things like speaking can work for some partnerships.
  • An independent Chair helps.
  • Have someone independent observe whats going on. 
  • Try ‘sitting outside’ and observing for yourself.
  • Try taking part in an ’embodied power differential exercise’ with Barod CIC

There are no easy answers here, but recognising that power is a ‘thing’ in partnerships, and that it can cause difficulties is a starting point.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Power has a big influence on what happens in partnerships. The more you have, the more likely it is that you will get what you want done.
  2. Recognising that there are differences in power within a partnership is a good staring point.
  3. Speaking truth to power is as difficult for people in partnerships as it is for individuals. It’s worth remembering that.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

3 Responses

  1. I’ve been in a load of partnership forums over the years and seen all these and many other sorts of power playing out. CLIQUE is a good one, where a few people have a shared experience and talk about the past almost in code, that excludes other people sat around the same table. It’s sort of a relationship-based Informational power and ironically for partnerships, I think there’s a relational version of most of the 8, a kind of anti-power.

    The one I see playing out a lot is kind of like an anti-LEGITIMATE. The Law/Position ‘doesn’t give you’ authority. ‘You are not’ the Boss/Commissioner/Inspector/Queen/King so don’t deserve power. It’s a rather spiteful kind of bias, that simmers rather than boils.

    In my experience, this reveals itself quite openly, perhaps albeit unconsciously, when in the presence of legitimate power. The spiteful one, behaves Referently to those above them and Coersively to those beneath, all in one breath. Keep an eye out for that one and simply call it out, as it’s how Cliques are formed.

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