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Dissecting Power and How it Influences Conflict

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Newsletter Edition: May 2014

Power is the ability to influence an outcome or get a task completed. To understand power it is vital to know the context in which it is being exerted and the other forces and influences in play. In the context of conflict power is defined as the ability to get one’s needs met. For a conflict to exist each of those involved must have some degree of power and the ability to influence the outcome of the conflict. This month’s newsletter dissects some concepts about power.

Understanding Power and Conflict

Power is an elusive concept because it has so many manifestations. Everyone has many potential sources of power, most of which he or she is often unaware. Some are independent of the conflict while others can be enhanced or diminished by the process of conflict (Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, CA: Jossey Bass, 2000, p. 54).

Structural v. Personal Power

Structural power is derived from the situation, the resources people bring to a conflict, the legal and political realities within which the conflict occurs, the existence of formal authority, if any, and the real choices that exist. One form of structural power is formal authority as discussed below. On the other hand, personal power is inherent in the individual, their personal characteristics and traits such as determination, communication skills, knowledge and perseverance. Id. Mediators can influence personal power by creating safe environments so that disparities in personal power can be equalized. Changes in structural power usually require systemic fixes.

Key Types of Power

Formal Authority: The authority given by an institution, by a set of laws or policies or by virtue of one’s position, such as school principal, board president or city council member. One’s effectiveness using formal authority depends on their personal power.

Legal Prerogative: Rights and choices defined by law or policy. A related source of power is the resources a person has to pursue legal action. Id at 55.

Information: Data and knowledge. If one party to a conflict has information that the other doesn’t they have power in a conflict based on their decision to share or conceal that knowledge.

Association: This kind of power comes from the connection with other people or groups, such as political entities, trade associations or any other organization. Some of a mediator’s power comes from the ability to maintain a connection with the parties in the dispute. Id at 56.

Resources: The ability to control resources whether tangible in the form of money, labor or time, or intangible, such as reputation and stamina, is a significant source of power
Rewards and sanctions: The ability to confer benefits or rewards and impose sanctions or penalties are opposite sides of the same coin. A parent withholding a treat or fun trip or imposing a time out and a child throwing tantrum in a crowded store are examples of the use of this type of power.

Morals: Power can flow from an appeal to the values, beliefs and ethics or from an attack on the values of those with whom you are in conflict. Id at 57. “Mahatma Gandhi referred to this as the force of truth.” Id at 57

Personal characteristics: This kind of power derives from an individual’s inherent make up, such as their perseverance, endurance, intelligence, communication skills, determination, and emotional and physical strength.
Some of these types of power are compatible with each other while others are not. For example, a person with tangible resources may be effectively able to use the threat of a lawsuit to negotiate a settlement. The use of an appeal to morals may not be effective if one doesn’t have personal characteristics to evoke this use of power.
In the workplace context a manager may have formal authority based on her position which was obtained by virtue of her intellect but her power may be diminished if she doesn’t have the skills to manage people on her team.

These types of power mix together in complex ways. The amount of power an individual has is less important than how effectively it is marshaled. “Sometimes it is important to use power to change a situation, and sometimes it is necessary to show a willingness to use power.” Id at 60. This dynamic is often seen in unionized workplaces. Threats to strike need to be credible in order for a negotiation to be effective. In civil litigation the threat of a pending motion or court decision may be effective use of legal prerogative that may result in a settlement.

In the conflict resolution field mediators are often working with parties who are attempting to use collaborative processes while at the same time preparing for a rights-based court process. A mediator’s effectiveness depends in part on how they help parties use their respective power.

How Power is Used

Regardless of the source and type of power there are three ways in which it can be used to influence others. First, is the normative or persuasive approach which appeals to people’s values or beliefs. For example, a parent asks their teenager to do the dishes after dinner because he’s part of the family and everyone pitches in. Second is the utilitarian approach which is based on the use of rewards. In the example above the parent would bestow a benefit on the teen for doing the dishes before breakfast tomorrow. The third use of power is coercive where power is employed as a method of punishment. In this case the teen could lose driving privileges if the dishes aren’t done.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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