CN: reference to abuse of power, toxic work environments, and physical threats or sexual assault from authority figures.
What would happen if you, an employee, walked into your boss’s office unannounced, interrupted their phone conversation, and gave them instructions on how they were to proceed with their work? What if you told your boss that their clothes are a violation of the dress code? What would happen if you told your boss that their work quality was unacceptable and that they needed to pack their things and leave the office immediately?
It’s hard to imagine doing those things, right? But turn the scenario around and it’s quite normal for a boss to have the ability to visit you without calling ahead, interrupt your work, and request that you change whatever it was that you were doing to something else. They have the ability to make rules that determine how you dress, speak, and conduct yourself at work. They have the ability to tell you what they think of your work and fire you if they don’t believe your work is good enough, thereby controlling your access to financial resources.
Why are these two scenarios so different? Why is one normal and one laughable? The answer is power dynamics.
What Are Power Dynamics?
The term, “power dynamics” is used to describe how the relative levels of power of two or more people/groups impact their interactions with one another. Power dynamics are an invisible force that we are all affected by on a daily basis that is such a normal part of our life that we follow the guidelines associated with our relative power level intuitively without being conscious of the fact that we’re doing it.
There are as many kinds of power dynamics as there are combinations of people and the process of assessing who has power and how much is a complex process. But today, I want to focus on how an easily identified uneven power dynamic between two people affects the behavior of each person in the interaction.
What Happens When There is an Uneven Power Dynamic?
In my article, “What Does It Mean When a Group Has Power?” I talked about the three main types of power-- social, financial, and institutional-- and what that power can afford you as an individual. In addition to the abilities you enjoy as an individual, being the person with more power in an interaction between two or more people comes with its own set of unique abilities.
All that is required for an uneven power dynamic to occur is for one party to have more social, financial, and/or institutional power than the other.
There are some examples of uneven power dynamics that we’re all familiar with: a teacher and their student, a parent and their child, a doctor and their patient. But power comes from a variety of sources, some of them merited or intentional, some of them arbitrary or random, and the result is that recognizing uneven power dynamics is not always intuitive. However, there are certain behaviors and qualities present in the vast majority of uneven power dynamics. I'll be using mostly worker vs. employee relationships as examples because I think it's the easiest to understand, but these patterns are in no way exclusive to that type of relationship. If you look for these traits, you’ll have an easier time of recognizing who in an interaction has the power, regardless of the context.
The Four Traits of Having More Relative Power
When you have more power in an interaction than someone else, you are likely to have:
Greater ability to enact consequences on the other person
Greater ability to give rewards to the other person, including granting them additional power
Greater access to additional resources or people with higher positions of power
Greater ability to evaluate/judge/give feedback to the other person
In other words, if you have these four traits and something goes wrong, you have the resources and/or authority to address the problem. If something goes well, you have the resources and/or authority to reward the other person with things like money, a job promotion, social acceptance, etc. In order to decide who gets what, you first have to evaluate the person’s performance/behavior. And your access to other people in positions of power enables you to gain their trust so that they are more likely to trust your judgment and support you in your decisions of when to enact consequences and when to give rewards.
The most easily recognizable examples of power are usually present in authority figures; people who have a legal or institutional responsibility to guide the actions of another person. Leaders, managers, and instructors all use the above qualities as part of their role.
For example, it is part of a teacher’s job to assess the performance of their student through tests and mentorship, to enact consequences for bad behavior such as sending you to the principal’s office, to reward high performance such as giving you good grades, and to share and receive information with other teachers to inform this process. And just like with the boss vs. employee example, flip the roles around and you’ll find that a young student would be hard pressed to punish a teacher for bad behavior, or give them a raise for being an awesome teacher, or give them an in-depth written assessment of their strengths and weaknesses in teaching.
Secondary Traits of Having More Relative Power
When you combine those four qualities mentioned above, they work together well as a system to enable authorities in their work but they also exist regardless of where your power comes from and regardless of whether you use it ethically. When you have access to these four abilities consistently, it results in a secondary set of abilities associated with having more power in an uneven dynamic.
More Choices Available to You
Having access to a greater range of choices is a defining characteristic of having power, but when we’re talking about a dynamic between two people, the number of available choices becomes even more relevant. For example, if your work is bad, your boss can choose from a range of consequences to motivate you towards better performance-- write-ups, demotions, undesirable work, taking you off important projects, threats of bad references for future jobs-- or he can choose to remove you from your position entirely if the problems are too severe.
But if your boss’s work is bad, your options for holding him accountable are very limited: You could tell your boss to change his behavior, but if he didn’t want to, you would have no way of punishing him for refusing. Some issues could be eligible for legal intervention, but usually, an employee has less funding to spend on legal representation than their boss does, and if you lose the case, you’ll be out legal fees and probably lose your job as well.
You may be able to report him to HR or to a higher manager, but because your boss has easier access than you do to other people with similar or higher levels of power as him, he is likely to have better relationships with them than you do, making them more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt and enforce milder consequences if they bring any at all.
If you lack the power of enforcement and you cannot convince anyone else with that power to act in your favor, you cannot make your boss do anything, no matter how wrong he is in his actions.
Trying to reward your boss’s good behavior has even less practical effect since it’s unlikely that you have any financial, institutional, or social resources to offer him that he doesn’t already have access to. When you have a bad boss, problems may go unsolved, your preferences can go ignored, and sometimes the only choice available to you is to leave your job.
Control Over the Other’s Options
The four traits of power boil down to a greater ability to make decisions that effectively impact other people. Other people live with the consequences and rewards that you have doled out as well as the resulting impact that those decisions have on their resources and relative power. But rewards and consequences can also be used to make changes that limit or expand the choices available to the person with less power.
A good manager who wants to retain high performing employees might offer opportunities for you to give them feedback and demonstrate receiving this information with grace. A bad manager who wants to control his employees using fear might retaliate against you for reporting them by demoting you or firing you. A good manager might introduce comprehensive policies to make reporting harassment safe and straight forward for his employees. A bad manager might avoid creating an HR at all, making himself the top of the food chain, giving you no clear avenue to address problem behaviors. And if you’re the employee, your already limited choices won’t likely include any control over what choices your boss has access to unless someone else with more power than you gives that ability to you.
Defining the Dominating Narrative
A single event can have many perspectives influenced by the biases of the people involved. The story of the man who was annoyed by the buzzing of a fly all day, continually chasing it until he finally hit it with a newspaper, will sound very different if told from the fly’s perspective. A dominant narrative refers to the stories and explanations that the majority of people believe to be true. These stories will, in turn, be used to inform the decisions made by anyone influenced by them. The dominant narrative is unique in that it does not have to be true in order to become dominant or in order to influence people.
For example, if you and a coworker have a conflict and report the conflict to your superior, you may each have a different account of what happened. Two stories are given, but only one is recorded, and decisions about your punishment or your future opportunities will be impacted by the one that was recorded, even if it’s false or biased. Let’s say that soon after this situation, you are evaluated for a promotion, but your records show your conflict with your coworker was your fault and the powers that be decide not to promote you. Regardless of whether the original punishment was fair, the dominant narrative will continue to be used to affect your future.
If you are in the position to evaluate someone else’s behavior, you get to choose which behaviors to reward and which to punish. As a result, the dominant narrative in a culture or community is usually reflective of the values of the person/group with the most power. Typically, the rules that exist within a community influence the beliefs of the people of that community about what is good or what is bad.
But in addition to having influence over which behaviors the people under you are motivated to perform or avoid, you can also use your position to report your assessment of the person’s behavior to others, including those with more power than you. The dominant narrative that you have created about your employee will follow them when they interact with other managers or employers and their opinion of your employee will be impacted by the stories and explanations you gave about their actions. Without the four primary traits of power, your stories about a person more powerful than you are unlikely to stick or impact them much at all. Your version of events is less likely to become the dominant one when you have less power.
The Consequences of Having More Relative Power
Human behavior is astonishingly predictable, and while we’re all capable of making choices that diverge from the mainstream, we tend to fall into certain behaviors because they are the easiest ones. It’s just a basic fact of life that on average, people will respond to certain influences or sources of resistance in a certain way over and over.
The effect power has on us is something our culture has known about for hundreds of years. As Lord Acton famously said in 1877, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If we combine the effects of the primary and secondary traits of having more power in an interaction, we get these three sobering abilities:
The Receipt and Expectation of Special Treatment
If you know someone has a lot of power over the quality of your life by giving punishments and rewards depending on your behavior, and you lack an easy pathway to holding the person accountable if their decisions are causing people problems, you’re going to be motivated to stick to behaviors that make the person with more power happy.
You’ll likely treat this person with greater respect and care, going out of your way to tailor your actions to their preferences, in the hope that they will treat you favorably, or just to avoid getting on their bad side. Even with leaders or authorities who are ethical and responsible in their actions, you’re likely to feel the pressure to please them.
The further implication of this pattern is that if you are the powerful person and you are used to everyone catering to your needs and opinions, it can be shocking or even threatening if someone chooses not to. The expectation of special treatment can turn into a negative feedback loop, continuing to reinforce itself as your reactions to just average treatment continue to worsen, and people work harder to avoid upsetting you, making you expect it even more.
The Ability to Withstand Consequences
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of power is when someone has situated themselves to be immune to consequences or accountability, at least not without expending tremendous amounts of resources to unseat them from their position.
A person with power who wants to avoid consequences can create severe punishments or otherwise decrease the quality of life for anyone who reports them and give additional power/other rewards to people that support them. Their extra access to resources and other people with power make it easier to navigate legal problems, convince the people in power that they’ve done nothing wrong, or if they don’t have power over the person holding them accountable, finding someone who does and can punish them on their behalf.
The person with less power has less or no access to all of these things, and as a result has to work far harder to hold the more powerful person accountable, so much so that the majority of people in their position won’t be willing to take the risk or won’t be able to do so at all.
Breaking the Law and Control Over the Other’s Physical Safety
The logical conclusion of the previous ability is that if you can bypass any system of accountability using a combination of the range of choices available to you, receiving the benefit of the doubt from other people in power, and/or from effectively punishing anyone who attempts to hold you accountable, you’re likely to be able be as unethical and unlawful as you want, and no one will stop you.
While having enough power to make yourself untouchable includes the potential to break many kinds of laws, one potential impact this ability has on person to person interactions when combined with the expectation of receiving special treatment is using threats to the safety of the person with less power as a tool of control.
If someone is used to getting their way and receives no consequences for irrational, unprofessional, or aggressive behavior, then nothing stands in their way of relying on threats of violence or actual assault as a tool to regain control over a situation. If theoretical threats to your finances, career or reputation doesn’t convince you to do what they want, violence probably will. Or in the case of sexual assault, violence is both a tool for control and a means of soliciting special treatment catered to the desires of the person in power.
Using Your Power
I’ve gone over a lot of worst-case scenarios here with what happens when power has a corrupting effect on a person, but the truth is, unequal power dynamics are not inherently bad. They frequently serve an important purpose in creating structure and order for accomplishing goals with large groups of people. However, because it’s easy for a powerful person to protect and reinforce their own power, balanced and ethical use of power relies heavily on the powerful person making ethical and responsible choices and on other bodies of power choosing to hold them accountable when necessary.
Of course, in order to do that, you have to know that you are the more powerful person and recognize the impact your actions have on the people around you with less power. It’s a lot easier to recognize when someone else has power over you than to notice that you have power over someone else, especially if the source of your power is social or not associated with any kind of leadership role.
One of the most commonly unrecognized sources of power is privilege. In addition to making power easier to acquire, privilege also affords you power over the corresponding marginalized groups without you having to do anything to accept it or wield it. Privilege will impact the power dynamics of any interaction you have, even if you’re completely unaware of how it’s manifesting.
In Part 2 I’ll go over different examples of uneven power dynamics for the three categories of power-- social, financial and institutional, explain why privilege inherently increases your relative power in an interaction with a marginalized person, touch on how intersectionality complicates matters, and offer some basic habits to develop in order to use your power responsibly and ethically.