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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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1.1 Defining power

Power involves degrees of influence and authority. These concepts can be defined as follows:

  • Power is the potential or capacity of a person or a group to influence other people or groups.
  • Influence occurs when a person or a group affects what another person or group does or thinks.
  • Authority is a particular kind of power. It is the power that is formally given to an individual or to a group because of the position or role that they occupy within an organisation. For example, managers will have certain authority over their groups or departments; a management committee will have authority to make certain decisions for its organisation.

There are many different sources of power or ‘power bases’, as they are commonly called in organisations. This week’s focus is on the following sources of power.

Position power

The position or role that a person holds in an organisation entitles them to do certain things, such as giving instructions to others, authorising expenditure, organising work or calling certain meetings. Ultimately, position power is backed up by the rules, regulations and resources of an organisation. It confers on an individual or a group the authority to undertake certain delegated responsibilities with the formal support of the organisation.

Resource power

All organisations depend for their continued existence on an adequate supply of resources, such as money, personnel, materials, technology and clients. Control over any of these resources, particularly if they are scarce, can be an important source of power both within and between organisations. If you depend on another person for a particular scarce resource, then that person can probably exert considerable influence over you. If the resource is not scarce and you can obtain it elsewhere, then the other person’s power is diminished.

Money is a key resource so it is not surprising that so much of organisational politics revolves around budgeting and the allocation of financial resources. People are another vital resource. If you control how people are deployed this provides some power, but you also have some power because of your ability to control your own labour. For example, you might seek to influence a colleague by threatening not to cooperate with them, or by giving only the minimum of effort.

Expert power

Expert power depends in particular on the relationship between the parties involved and on the context of their relationship. A person’s claim to expertise is only ‘legitimate’ when it is recognised by those over whom it is exercised. The recognition of expertise is often a matter of reputation and demonstration. If you go into a group with a good reputation, or if you have developed one in the group, your expertise is more likely to be recognised. If you are new to a group, then recognition will probably grow if you can demonstrate that you know what you are talking about. Of course, it is usually best to stick to things you do actually know about! Furthermore, you may influence what other people or groups believe or do when they perceive you to be more expert than they are.

Information power

Without some degree of expertise you cannot judge what information is relevant or important. Access to information is often a result of a person’s position and their wider connections. A person’s position may give them access to important committees and other meetings. People who occupy key positions in the information networks of organisations are often called ‘gatekeepers’ because they can control the flow of information. Gatekeepers are in a position to shape knowledge in a way that favours their interests, by opening and closing channels of communication and selectively filtering, summarising, analysing and timing the release of information.