Understanding the power dynamic

May 7, 2021
Jeff Couillard

Suggestion: If you haven’t read our post on the Five types of power, it is a great pre-read to this post :).

What is it?

The ‘power dynamic’ can be thought of as a differential - a continuum of power that exists between people in a relationship. Every relationship we have with another human being exists inside of a power dynamic, which consists of relative differences in the ability to influence, impact and affect change in one and other.

Important aspects of the power dynamic

A simplified example of the power dynamic consists of two individuals, where one is in an “up-power” position while the other is in a “down-power” position. Let’s imagine a manager and an employee, where the manager has more power than the employee. There are many predictable things that happen inside of a relational power dynamic; here are a few of the most important ones to know about:

Two key forces of the power dynamic

The intersection between the 5 types of power and the power dynamic can create a great deal of complexity, particularly in relationships that aren’t clearly defined with expectations and agreements. In the power dynamic there are two predictable forces at play; forces that can drive a disconnecting wedge within our relationships.

Up-power awareness

More accurately, a lack of awareness. When we’re in an up-power position, it can be challenging to fully understand the impact that our behaviour has on the other person. In our example, it is very easy for the manager to make decisions that negatively impact the employee, such as changes to a schedule, implementing new systems that shift more burden or responsibility to the employee, or making a casual remark about a rumour on corporate restructuring.

Down-power vulnerability

When we’re in a down-power position, we’re automatically more vulnerable. We have less ability than the other person to affect change, and are more susceptible to the negative impacts of their decisions. This vulnerability often manifests in a reluctance to give constructive or negative feedback (to communicate the negative impacts of up-power’s actions).

These two forces combine to form what we call the ‘dynamic of disconnection’.

A reflective question (or two) for you

  1. Think of an up-power position you occupy (or have occupied). How do/did you know what your actual impact is/was on the other person? What are/were some of the signs and symptoms when you were both connected and disconnected?
  2. Think of a down-power position you occupy (or have occupied). What are/were some of the positive and negative impacts you experienced? How did you communicate those impacts to the other person?

Questions? Thoughts? Feedback? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from you!