The Power Paradox: Finding It When You Need It

I have been thinking about power recently. Of course, it has risks and benefits. The risks are not always experienced by the powerless, and the benefits are not always reserved for the powerful. I am quite happy when my physician exercises the power of her position and expertise to write a prescription for my sore throat. I am glad to have a young friend with the power to manage my technology. In these cases, I am happy to give my power to another. In other situations, though, I guard my power jealously and will not release it without a fight.

This week, in our HSD Professional certification, we have talked about power in many contexts, including international development, violent extremism, family violence, social justice, expertise in the classroom, freedom of the press, and professional roles of facilitation and consulting. I looked for a general rule about when power is positive and when it is negative. The obvious answer would be, “when I have it,” but that failed the test for what is both true and useful. 

Then I remembered a distinction Habermas makes between what he calls communicative and strategic acts.

A communicative act takes place between two people who are connecting to share relationship or information. Connections like this are most effective with power is equally shared by both parties. When we explore a common concern, when we extend friendship, when we share our stories and connect human-to-human, we should neutralize the difference in power between us. Issues of our identities should not be distorted by power. On the other hand . . .

A strategic act involves individual, shared, or collective action. These acts are most effective when there is some imbalance of power. If we are to do work, we need to have some asymmetry in power. Maybe the necessary power comes from a difference in information, experience, resources, or energy. If there is no difference there can be no power, and we are stuck in entropy. No effective action can take place.

So, as I try to assess patterns of power—mine and others’—I need to inquire about the purpose.  Is the work communicative or strategic action? This distinction will help shape my choices about when and how to use my power or to respond to the power of others.

What are other distinctions that can inform the uses and abuses of power in complex systems? 


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