Workplace Power Dynamics: Part 2

Fun Things to do with Power

By Daniel Robin

Last article kicked around the dynamics of interpersonal power; this one applies these dynamics in some sticky situations. Because power is a central issue in working out disputes, this theme will culminate some loose ends that when mushed together can be used to gain leverage, cooperation and results.

Two of the toughest situations are when the other person thinks there is no conflict, or situations where the conflict is a given, but resolving it seems hopeless. This has probably never happened to you, right?

You Are Not Alone

There’s more power with two people looking at “the problem” from the same side of the table than if all the energy goes to escalating our right to be heard, as if our position is the most important thing. If you want resolution, your position must be seen as equally important to theirs. By being willing to first understand and accept the validity of the other person’s point of view, regardless of whether or not we agree with it, we can escalate understanding and acceptance — and eventually get to an agreement.

Sounds ideal, perhaps even idealistic? Maybe so, but it works! In all interpersonal disputes, the key to resolution is to establish a positive conflict management frame in which the other party can feel secure enough to deal with the conflict (or admit there is one). That probably involves bringing the situation to their attention in a way that balances clarity about what you want with consideration for their self-interest.

What’s Good for the Goose is the Gander

Everyone I know operates out of self-interest. Well, maybe some people operate out of a sense of universal oneness, but they don’t pay rent, so whatever. If you want resolution and they don’t, you’ll want to find some leverage. The question is, how can we get them to tell us what would motivate them, what’s in it for them, what would work?

If you have some basis — any basis — for an ongoing relationship, your relationship with the other person can be the leverage that buys you new options, as it contains power to get both of you to a better agreement. Caveat: you must handle it non-adversarially. If you go for threats and consequences, you’ll automatically lose out.

Walking the Balance Beam

Since fighting gives power away, what are the “moves” that retain the shared available power and build it toward a new agreement? The first move, if you haven’t already done so, is to look inside and check to see if the conflict is internal — a problem that you are feeling inside yourself that may not really involve the other party. Self-respect is the gateway to respecting and collaborating with others. Some people believe that all conflict is a result of internal confusion about what we want or who we are. Think about it.

Assuming there are inherent power differences, or if both parties do not share the same information or access, it might be in one party’s best interest to reach resolution, but not the other’s. How can you establish a level playing field? In our workshops, we teach a seven-step dispute resolution approach that addresses power imbalance. That doesn’t guarantee resolution, but it does increase the possibility. Dance step #4, goes as follows:

How to Equalize Power

Offer or request that positional power temporarily be put aside. For example, a woman owner of a company, white male supervisor, or a parent can temporarily deny privilege and “power over” in favor of “power with” in order to exploit the common interests of both parties — not exploit each other. You might choose to share or accept some key information that the other person needs to be willing to reach resolution. What’s your bottom line? What’s theirs? Get together and talk about it.

From here you need only identify your shared interests and weigh them against any differences.