The Power Strategy Mix

By Heidi Burgess

August 20, 2020

 

Coronavirus

This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog

 

We have a lot of posts about power on Beyond Intractability, and even a Conflict Frontiers Video on the Power Strategy Mix.  But I wanted to write a blog post to draw attention, again, to this critical concept because it is very important in the context of our current political struggles.

The term was coined by peace scholar (and one of the founders of the Conflict Information Consortium) Paul Wehr, drawing on the ideas of Kenneth Boulding who wrote the book The Three Faces of Power.  Boulding argued that there are three types of power or what can be called power strategies: destructive (coercive) power, productive (or exchange) power, and integrative power based on persuasive appeals to do the right thing.  Destructive power is characterized by threats: "you do as I say, or else!" If the "or else" has to be carried out, the result is usually destructive, and even if it isn't carried out, the threat usually destroys (or at least damages) relationships.

Integrative power  is the power to create relationships, to bring and hold people together.  It is the most fundamental form of power because the other two do not work without it, but it can work without the other two. 

Productive power is the power to create.  Boulding also calls this "exchange power" because exchange and trade are typical productive behaviors.  (The basic formulation, Boulding says, is "If you do this for me, then I'll do that for you.") Economies are the system that society uses to manage the exchange of productive efforts.  So, too, of course, is negotiation.  It gives people the power to get what they want through mutually-beneficial trades.

Integrative power, wrote Boulding, is the power to create relationships, to bring and hold people together.  Relationships of love and respect rest on integrative power; families, organizations, and other social groups use integrative power to gain and keep members.  Although integrative power generally isn't even considered to be power, it is the most fundamental form of power because the other two do not work without it, but it can work without the other two. 

PSM is like a recipe.  Depending on the situation, you might want a lot of eggs—a binding agent (i.e., integrative power), more sugar (an enticement or exchange power) or more vinegar (sour—a threat).

What Paul Wehr added to this formulation was that usually, two, if not all three of these types of power are used together. He called the resulting action the "power strategy mix"  (PSM).  When I taught about this I used to liken the PSM to a recipe.  Depending on the situation, you might want a lot of eggs—a binding agent (i.e., integrative power), more sugar (an enticement for exchange power) or more vinegar (sour—a threat).

I also showed this rather complicated graphic.  Let me explain it.

power mix graphic

 

Across the top, below the black arrow which says “types of people,” you’ll see that we have listed four different categories of people. People who are easily convinced to do what you want we refer to as “persuadables.” People who might do what you want with considerable pushing are called “reluctant persuadables.” People who don’t really care about the principle, but are willing to trade are called “traders.” And people who have their heels stuck in the sand and refuse to be persuaded or compromise are referred to as "incorrigibles."

In order to use power most effectively, it’s important to figure out which type of person you’re dealing with, and design your PSM accordingly.

In order to use power most effectively, it’s important to figure out which type of person you’re dealing with, and design your PSM accordingly. At the bottom of the chart you can see that destructive/coercive power is illustrated with red, productive/exchange power is illustrated with green, and integrative  is illustrated with white. 

If you decide you’re working with somebody who is likely a persuadable, why use a lot of coercive power? All it’s going to do is make them mad! You might not even need to exchange much, because you might be able to convince them to do what you want without giving them much, if anything, in exchange. Rather, you can convince them that it is the right thing to do using simple persuasion and integrative power—they’ll do what you want because they love you, they respect you, or they know it is right.  (So this column might not need any red or green in it at all.  It probably, actually, should be all white!

If you are dealing with a trader, you should use mostly exchange. You may use some persuasion (i.e., integrative power) to try to explain to them why the exchange that you are proposing makes sense, and you might need to use a little bit of coercion to try to get them to listen to you in the first place. But mostly you use exchange. (Coercion can also be used to bind parties to an exchange agreement.)

However, when it comes to dealing with uncompromising, hostile, and aggressive people, you don’t really have much choice. You have to use primarily coercion—you have to force them to budge. You’ll note that the fourth tower to the right is much skinnier than the others. That’s not an accident—it’s on purpose. It’s because most people aren’t incorrigible—even though we often think they are. Most people fall into one of the other three categories. So if you routinely use coercion, you are going to be needlessly making a lot of people angry and risking backlash. You should use a different PSM.  When you have to use coercion, the key to limiting destructive backlash is to only use coercion in ways that are broadly seen as legitimate based on persuasive appeals to widely held-values. (For example, coercion is most often approved to prevent other people from advancing their interests through violent intimidation.)

In the second to the left tower are the "reluctant persuadables." For them, you need some coercion to get their attention, some exchange to again engage them, but still mostly persuasion once you have their attention.

Don’t use the same PSM with everybody. And don’t fall back on coercion or threat except in exceptional circumstances.

The key here is you don’t use the same PSM with everybody. And you don’t fall back on coercion or threat except in exceptional circumstances with people who are really aggressive. It is almost always much better,  to use a softer power strategy mix.

So how does all this apply to our situation in the summer of 2020?  Most of us are almost entirely focused on the coercive power of an election.  Democrats want to force the Republicans out of power through the ballot box.  Republicans want to force the Democrats to back down off all their "outrageous" demands and allow the Republicans to continue to apply their policies to the U.S. and the world.  The paucity of cooperation to pass bills in Congress shows how little exchange power is being used, and the only integrative power that is being used is used for consolidating each side into stronger and more cohesive voting blocks  Very, very little integrative power is being focused on the other side, especially by Donald Trump.  Biden has, however, done some reaching across the aisle, as have some Republican leaders who are adopting more Democratic stances (for instance John Kasich, former Ohio Governor, and  Christine Todd Whitman (former New Jersey Governor) who were two of four Republicans who spoke at the Democratic National Convention, supporting Democrat Joe Biden.  But overall, most of the political engagement right now is coercive.

The result is continued polarization and pendulum swings from one side to the other.  When Trump came into office, his main goal appeared to be to undo everything that Obama had done.  If Biden comes into office, he is likely to try to reverse most of what Trump has done.  Since it is widely seen that some of Trump's policies (particularly with respect to COVID-19) have been highly destructive, this is necessary.  But until the two sides start engaging in exchange and integration, we are not going to be able to solve any of our most pressing problems because, as I have said elsewhere, these problems are not "one-sided problems."  We cannot fix COVID-19 or racism or climate or health care or any other pressing problem with only half of the power structure and the electorate on board.  We need cooperation— and a big dollop of integrative power!

For more information on power and the power strategy mix, see: