Power is in the Eye of the Beholder

We often think of power in absolute terms: one person has it, another doesn’t. In two teambuilding workshops several years ago, however, I learned that power is more subjective than objective.

The organization in question had a strong union presence and was polarized to the extent that they held separate two workshops – one for the unionized and another for management. During the first workshop (attended by unionized staff), I introduced the concepts of empowerment and the value of “asking directly for what you want”. The first concept was met with skepticism; the latter with outright resistance. I heard comments such as “the last guy that spoke up against management spent the rest of the year on graveyard shift” and “when I made a suggestion to my boss, he told me a monkey could do my job”. The vast majority of the unionized employees felt powerless.

When I worked with management the next day, I expected to meet a group of confident individuals who saw themselves as being firmly in control. Yet when offered the concepts of empowerment and assertion, they were equally resistant as their unionized counterparts had been the day before. Many of the managers were loath to confront workers on performance issues. One manager opined “we can’t do anything – with the union around here, someone has to shoot someone while drunk on the job – and even then, it’s only a two-day suspension.” It was a revelation to me that each group saw the other as having greater power. It was no surprise the workplace was rife with mistrust, fear and avoidance.

Power is a major thread in the tapestry (or, perhaps Gordian Knot) of conflict. It can be defined as “the ability to influence change” or “the ability to get one’s needs met and to further one’s goals” (Bernie Mayer). Those who feel powerless in conflict may tend to passivity and remain the victim. Others react angrily (as the hero/villain – depending on your perspective) in an attempt to gain power. Either approach will stifle communication and thwart collaboration. Yet as integral as power is to conflict, people often misunderstand it – and underestimate their own power.

Reality check: Consider a conflict or negotiation in which you are involved. You may have more power (in the eyes of the other person) than you think you do. They may perceive themselves as having less power than you give them credit for. Check your perceptions before they become your reality.

Next up: The many sources of power.

About Gary Harper, The Joy of Conflict Resolution

Gary Harper is the principal of Harper and Associates. He is a trainer, writer and facilitator who specializes in conflict resolution. Through his unique blend of experience as a personal injury lawyer, general manager, insurance regulator and retail store owner, he learned the value of clear communication and conflict resolution skills. Since 1991 he has trained and mediated in a wide variety of organizations - from health care to the film industry to many levels of government. He is a member of the instructional team of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B. C. and recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home.
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