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Assess Power Imbalances
There are many different relationships and job environments where power and conflict are inherent. Though most businesses operate with a philosophy of customer orientation (due to customer buying power), some services such as lawyers, insurance companies and government services do not grant the superiority status of the buyers over the sellers. Professional services that are more technically complex would have the service provider rather than the customer, enact the leading role during the service encounter. Customers of professional services such as medical, architectural, and legal, tend to feel powerless against the administrative voices of the service providers. In government agencies’ services and products, the customer is given a little choice but will take what the policy dictates. This situation where power favors the service provider usually leads to a high level of customer dissatisfaction (Lee, 2010).
Power is the ability to produce some effect that can influence the allocation of resources (Ralph et al. 2013), while conflict arises from the differences in views due to individuals’ understandings of the world and personal experiences (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014). Mutual dependence on valuable but finite organizational resources may cause a team to have conflict over the allocation of these resources (van Bunderen, Greer, & van Knippenberg, 2018). A service provider’s possession of a scarce resource such as knowledge, judgment and expertise and a customer’s dependence on that resource, would place that service provider in a place of power and superiority over the customer. The more value that the customer places on the resources of the service provider, and the more restricted it is to obtain alternative means to those services, the greater the power symmetry will be (Lee, 2010).
Power currencies depend on how much other persons value one’s particular resource in a relationship context. Power is dependent on having currencies that people need. Regardless of labels, every individual has potential currencies that they can use to balance or gain power in a relationship. The acronym RICE (resource control, interpersonal linkages, communication skills, and expertise) is used to analyze power currencies (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
Resource control is the result of a being in a formal position that brings the resources to that position, such as CEO, parenting, or the President of the United States. Because power goes with any designated position- whether boss, secretary, teacher, or volunteer- the person in that position will be able to control those resources which other people value. Many resources are economic in value such as material possessions, money, and gifts, and people try to use them to get intimate currencies from each other, which does not always work. Economic currencies are not only important as a power currency but are also part of personal and social conflict as well, and people with little money usually have limited access to this power (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
Another form of power currency is interpersonal linkages, which are dependent on one’s interpersonal contacts, and network of supporters and friends. People can get power from whom they know and their associates. Interpersonal linkages help one to attain power through coalition formation, where people band themselves together to get stronger. Someone may use their interpersonal linkage network as a source of power to find out about job vacancies from a friend or free classes and other information of value.
A person’s communication skill can also serve as a power currency in an organization, as a leader who can speak persuasively, lead a group in decision making processes or serve as a mediator between angry peoples, will gain significant power because of their communication skills. Communication also includes the ability to form bonds through caring, love, nurturing, sex, understanding, empathic listening, intension, warmth, and other types of intimate relationships. A leader cannot become an effective conflict manager without excellent interpersonal communication skills (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
According to Joyce et al. (2014), the interpersonal approach to conflict management focuses on communication exchanges that make up the episode. Experts have agreed that conflict is no different from regular communication but is a part of the ongoing flow of communication between human beings. Communication is a central element in all interpersonal conflict and is related in the following ways:
- The behavior of communication creates conflict
- Communication is the vehicle for productive or destructive management conflict
- Communication behavior reflects the conflict
How people choose to communicate during conflict can have a tremendous residual impact, as they can choose to manage their conflict to be productive or exacerbate it. If there is not effective communication from the person who is perceived to have power, the person with lower power may choose to avoid, or persist in negative behaviors that prolong the conflict (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
Having knowledge or skills that people value is viewed as having expertise currency. Almost all professions develop specialized skills and expertise valued by others, which serves as a basis for power for their services. The teacher in their profession has services which people value, likewise, do family members who have specific valuable skills and expertise such as cleaning, repairing the house or babysitting which other members depend upon.
Developing one currency at the expense of another will limit one’s power. For example, one who uses only their currency of interpersonal linkages may not properly develop their expertise currency or their skill to communicate. It is only by developing many power currencies and knowing when to activate these powers, can one become efficient in participating in conflict (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
A person’s integrative power depends on the power of persuasion, communication, and power language. According to Joyce et al. (2014), collaboration and constructive realignment of power is best for all who are concerned as long as the following conditions are met:
- There is not an abuse of power by the high-power person to the lower power person whereby the influence of the lower power person is taken away
- There is no lying, distorting or suffering from a character disorder
- The long-term gains are worth the energy input Competitive power has its place also and is useful when:
- The crucial needs of one party are at steak
- Competition leads to collaboration
Power is relational, and most destructive conflicts often occur over struggles of perceived power. If a person struggles with someone, that person may try to block the other’s excise of power, and most likely this will be reciprocated by the other person also, so it is essential to understand that the more one struggles with someone, the less power they have with that person. Integrative power moves people past the struggle and war and into a new plane of a relationship. Shared power brings into existence power creation through communication (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
Workers or participants in a conflict are more likely to make long-range relationships work if they move toward balancing power. When there is asymmetry in power in a relationship, the members of the group can balance their relationship by:
1. Trying to convince themselves and their partners that their relationship is more balanced than it seems
2. Work toward making the relationship more equal
3. Abandon the unbalanced relationship
Balancing power usually does not start with outside intervention but with skills that one already possesses (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014). Leaders in organizations should remember that dialogue is an integral part of balancing power, and face to conversation remains the starting point. Talking directly to the ones involved in the conflict is always the best first step in resolution, because emails, memos, and public announcements can sometimes make a conflict worse. In order to be productive, a leader should have conversations that involve:
Speaking with a positive tone- showing respect and compassion for the other perspective
Listen- paying close attention and asking open-ended questions, letting the person know that you are listening to them. Being sure not to say “I understand you but it just that…..” This statement will make the other feel like you do not understand what they are saying
Clarify what you have heard- you can say “let me be sure I understand what you are saying….”
Question when needed- ask questions for which you do not know the answer
Summarize what you have heard
Another way in which power is balanced in an organization is through restraint. Restraint occurs when a high-power individual refuses to use all their currencies at their disposal. They do this in order to limit their power. When a high-power person refuses to act in a natural response, the restraint can alter the automatic nature of that destructive cycle. An example of this is when a militarily powerful country decides to go to the United Nations instead of invading their neighboring country (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
Lower power individuals can focus on the relatedness and interdependence between themselves and high-power individuals in order to achieve a balance of power in the organization. People are interdependent because they need to get things done and also would like to be recognized for their contributions. This is evident in relationships where people move-in together, and their power grows as a result of each other. When people elevate their dependence on each other, both increase their sources of power. Other effective measures that can be utilized include empowerment of low powered people by high powered people, metacommunication, and staying actively engaged in the organization in order to benefit everyone, including oneself (Joyce, Hocker, William, 2014).
- Joyce L. Hocker, William W., Wilmot (2014). Interpersonal Conflict 9th edition
- Lee, J. (2010). Perceived power imbalance and customer dissatisfaction. Service Industries Journal, 30(7), 1113–1137. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1080/02642060802298384
- Ralph, N., Welch, A. J., Norris, P., & Irwin, R. (2013). Reflections on power, conflict and resolution for the perioperative environment. ACORN: The Journal of Perioperative Nursing in Australia, 26(1), 19–22. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy1.ncu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ccm&AN=104274387&site=eds-live
- Siemienniako D., Mitrega M., (2018). Improving power position with regard to non-mediated power sources – The supplier’s perspective. Industrial Marketing Management, 70, 90-100. doi: 10.1016/j.indmarman.2017.08.013
- Van Bunderen, L., Greer, L. L., & van Knippenberg, D. (2018). When Interteam Conflict Spirals into Intrateam Power Struggles: The Pivotal Role of Team Power Structures. Academy of Management Journal, 61(3), 1100–1130. https://doi: org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.5465/amj.2016.0182
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