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In small groups, people attempt to influence each other and exercise power. Power cannot exist without relationships or communication, but power is evident in all relationships, so power is always part of small group dynamics. And yet, no single group member "owns" power in a group.


Power is a force that gives one communicator (or unit) the ability to influence another communicator (or unit) to take an action which would not otherwise be taken. Thus, power is not the static property of an individual, group, organization, or the environment. Rather, power operates in the "in-between" spaces in contexts and relationships. Just as a leader cannot lead without followers, individuals and groups cannot exercise power independent of context and relationships. Since power functions within specific contexts and relationships, the people who exercise power and the occasions when they do so change as time passes and contexts change.

Authority refers to power that has been validated by formal cultural, societal, small group, and organizational rules and practices. Authority is vested in a particular position or role. For example, appointed group leaders are granted a certain degree of power based on their leadership role. Members of a group, organization, society, or culture develop an understanding that power should be distributed in a certain way. Thus, we generally don't question parents' authority over their children. However, under certain circumstances, we may judge that parents are not adequately fulfilling their role, and therefore do not have authority over their children. So, while authority is linked to particular roles, contexts, issues, and relationships, circumstances can still influence the legitimacy of individuals' authority.

Politics occur when group members vie for power and influence within the group. Political communication can also occur between groups and between a group and its environment. Although we typically think of politics in negative terms, political maneuvering is not necessarily good or bad. When group members adhere to the ethical principles discussed in the Ethics in Small Groups unit, politics can be an effective way of promoting views beneficial to the group and others outside the group. Unfortunately, politics often involves unethical behavior that leads to poorly considered, irresponsible, questionable decisions and solutions. Unethical behavior can harm group members and those outside the group.

Forms of Power

Power becomes dominance when one (or more) group member has the ability to influence others who are not able to respond in kind. Domineering people generally assert their own will without considering the needs of other people. The amount of power one person has over another is based on how much each depends on the other. If Group Member A has all the information needed to complete her group's project, then other group members will be forced to depend on her, and she will have a lot of power. If all the group members have an equal share of the information needed to complete a project, then power will be distributed evenly among the members. Because group members are by definition interdependent, no single group member can control all power in the group. However, as the inequity between group members grows, it becomes more and more likely that one or two members will be able to dominate the group.

Since group members are interdependent, members of a group always have the ability to exercise power, even when one member is dominant. Power that is exercised in response to dominance is called resistance. A group member can dominate only when others cooperate. For example, Group Member A may set a deadline and tell the other group members to turn in their work by a specific date. If the other group members feel that Group Member A's actions are unreasonable, the result may be late assignments, forgotten deadlines, and poorly written sections. In that way, the group members can resist Group Member A's attempt to dominate the group.

Power imbalances in a small group can also be corrected through empowerment. This form of power is demonstrated as power is distributed throughout a group. Group members earn their ability to exercise power by becoming experts on the group's task, gathering relevant information, developing alliances, rewarding others for good work, and demonstrating active involvement in the group. So, rather than resisting Group Member A's attempts at dominance, the other group members can work on empowering themselves and Group Member A. Thus, group members may suggest that the final report be divided among the members, with each person responsible for a different topic. All group members would become experts on their topics, therefore developing a basis for influence in the group. Group members might also form alliances or coalitions as a way to pool their resources.

Empowerment does not mean that all group members have the same amount of power in the group at all times. The distribution of power will always change as group members interact over time. Thus, Sally might exert more power during meeting 1, Sarah during meeting 2, and Justin during meeting 3. Even within meetings, the group's power dynamics will not remain static. However, a key feature of a group working towards empowerment is that all the group members are heard during decision making and problem solving.

Identifying Power

Who exerts power? How do you know? Small group culture is one example of a situation in which the artifacts of power can be discerned. Culture is both a tool used to help excercise power, and a relic of power because rituals, practices, stories, language and other aspects of culture can be used to facilitate a group member's use of power and can also be used to study the way power is used within the group. Group members can use language, myths, symbols, and rituals to legitimize the exercise of power and make politics less noticeable. For example, group members may use rituals to indicate the group's power hierarchy. Group members may tell stories that suggest who can influence the group's decision-making processes and who cannot. Thus, group members do not say explicitly who has power and who doesn't, but through their rituals and stories, they describe the roles people play and the level of power inherent in those roles. Thus, it is possible to study the use of power within a group by studying the aspects of culture which address power.

The way power is distributed within a group becomes embedded in the group's culture and thus legitimized. Culture is much like air: we don't notice it, but it is a very important part of our lives. When power distributions are validated by a group's culture, group members do not question why resources are allotted in a certain way, and they don't question decision-making processes that may favor particular members of the group. So group member may say, "Marketing has always gotten more technical support than other departments," and never ask why that is the case.

Cultural Indicators and Power

The cultural indicators discussed in the Culture and Small Group Communication unit are also useful ways of studying the way power is exercised within a group. By investigating small group culture, you can uncover processes that typically work behind the scenes in the group's interactions. Thus, you can examine that which we normally take for granted in small groups by taking a closer look at key features of small group culture.

  1. Vocabulary: what terms are used to describe various group members? For example, is there a clear distinction between "newbies" and "elders"? Do different coalitions or factions use different terminology? Is some terminology considered better or more sophisticated than others? Who controls the language the group uses? How does the group define itself?

  2. Practices: how are decisions made in the group? Do coalitions gather before group meetings to plan their strategies? Are meetings opportunities for promoting hidden agendas and personal goals? Who controls the way group members accomplish their tasks? To what degree do group members have autonomy as they complete tasks and make decisions?

  3. Stories: who tells stories? Who are the winners in the stories? Who are the losers? Who makes decisions? Who carries out those decisions? Who gives out rewards/punishments? Who receives those rewards/punishments?

  4. Metaphors: groups who refer to themselves in military terms ("She's the commander; I'm the lieutenant" "We battled it out in the meeting") are likely to have a clear hierarchy with power concentrated at the top. Groups who describe themselves in more egalitarian terms ("Our group is a brain; different members control different group functions") are likely to have a more democratic approach to power.

  5. Rituals: does the meeting start when the group's leader arrives, or can anyone begin the meeting? Who is rewarded in ceremonies? Are all group members rewarded, or are specific individuals singled out? Who develops group rituals? Who implements them? Who participates in rituals? Who does not?

  6. Objects: objects often embody the essence of the group. The slogan or logo the group chooses to represent it can reveal the way power is distributed in the group. In addition, the way the slogan or logo is selected (by one person or by many) indicates the level of influence individual group members have.

When examining the ways in which power in regulated within a group, it is important to look beyond the cultural indicators to the values beneath them. Stories, practices, and vocabularies legitimize power structures so group members accept such structures without question. In analyzing group culture, group members should ask, "Who is privileged in our group?" and "Who is left out of decision-making and problem-solving processes?" Then group members should ask, "How can we more equitably distribute power in our group?" That is, group members should work together to empower themselves. How can practices serve to empower group members? What rituals will encourage all group members to exert influence in the group? What might be a more appropriate way to talk about our group?


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Gastil, J. (1993). Democracy in small groups: Participation, decision making, and communication. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.

Glaser, H. (1996). Structure and struggle in egalitarian groups: Dimensions of power relations. Small Group Research, 27, 551-571.

Langellier, K., & Peterson, E. (1993). Family storytelling as a strategy of social control. In D. Mumby (Ed.), Narrative and social control: Critical perspectives (pp. 49-76). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Mumby, D. K. (1988). Communication and power in organizations: Discourse, ideology and domination. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Pfeffer, J. (1981). Power in organizations. Boston: Pitman.


Helmer, J. (1993). Storytelling in the creation and maintenance of organizational tension and stratification. Southern Communication Journal, 59, 34-44.

Holt, G. R. (1989). Talk about acting and constraint in stories about organizations. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 53, 374-397.

Peterson, E. (1987). The stories of pregnancy: On interpretation of small-group cultures. Communication Quarterly, 35, 39-47.

Papa, M., Auwal, M., & Singhal, A. (1997). Organizing for social change within concertive control systems: Member identification, empowerment, and the making of discipline. Communication Monographs, 64, 219-249.

Savoie, E. (1998). Tapping the power of teams. In R. Tindale, L. Heath, J. Edwards, E. Posavac, F. Bryant, Y. Suarez-Balcazar, E. Henderson-King, & J. Myers (Eds.)., Theory and research on small groups (pp. 229-244). New York: Plenum Press.

Shonk, J. (1992). Team-based organizations: Developing a successful team environment. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin.


The Challenge to Change: Creating Diversity in our Libraries
Sponsored by several libraries in the eastern U.S. in 1998, the notes and papers from the conference provide a glimpse into the intersection of diversity and power as experienced by conference participants. Click on Program, Abstracts, and Notes for a list of papers presented. "Diversity Matters: How One University Has Learned to Collaborate, Understand, and Appreciate Its Differences" is probably the most relevant to this unit.

Leadership Strategies-Test Yourself
Sponsored by Leadership Strategies, this site offers free leadership coaching through a series of online quizzes.

Developing Coalitions: An Eight-Step Guide
Sponsored by the University of South Florida's Community and Family Health Department, this website provides an overview of strategies for effective coalition development. Other useful pages include:

how to address barriers to building coalitions,

coalitions and empowerment,

multicultural issues in coalitions,

and building community coalitions.

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