What are Power Dynamics?

Jan 05, 2023 | By Jenna van Schoor
What are power dynamics? - Global SACAP

Power dynamics can be complex. To give a broad definition, they refer to the balance of power between two or more people when they engage with each other. Depending on cultural and other relevant contexts, this can look very different.

In a workplace setting, for example, there will be a certain power dynamic between a manager and their team. Hierarchy establishes levels of seniority in the workplace. In interpersonal relationships however, the balance of power can be less obvious, and perhaps more tricky to navigate.  

This makes it essential to understand the psychology behind this balance or exchange of power, especially when it comes to managing conflict or power struggles.

Why gain a better understanding of power dynamics?

It’s valuable to understand how power works in relationships for various reasons. In the workplace, power dynamics can impact company culture and the way that employees engage with one another. How employees interact can also affect productivity and ultimately, the bottom line, so it is crucial to find ways to promote positive interactions and be able to manage conflict appropriately. 

In close personal relationships, the balance of power between two or more people can define the nature of a relationship, and how fulfilling it is. Power dynamics can also lead to destructive conflict, so it’s crucial to understand and manage them to ensure more harmonious relations.

How is power established in relationships?

According to psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, there are seven different types of power:

  1. Coercive: This type of power involves coercion, or the threat of punishment if the other party doesn’t comply. Coercion can be negative, in that it can lead to abuse of power, but this type of power can also be used to encourage behaviour that is better for the greater good. For example, the threat of punishment if you commit a crime.
  2. Expert: When you are an expert in a specific field, you wield a certain amount of power, as not many people will have the same level of knowledge or experience. For example, in a relationship between a teacher and a student, the teacher holds expert power. 
  3. Reward: This type of power involves holding power to reward certain behaviour, both positively and negatively. For example, a positive reward could be a promotion or increased salary for performance, or approval. A negative reward, on the other hand, could be a form of punishment. 
  4. Informational: Related to expert power, informational power means that a person has access to certain information that gives them status or makes them valuable or desirable.
  5. Formal power: This type of power refers to an official position that wields power. An example would be the CEO of a company or the president of a country.
  6. Referent power: Combining both power and influence, referent power means that someone can win over others because of how they are admired for their characteristics. 
  7. Connection power: This type of power refers to having access to resources. For example, a person with a list of business connections, or a human resource professional with many contacts for those in the job market.

Power struggles

If we look at the list above, we can start to see how struggles can emerge when people in relationships or workplace settings exert power differently – either knowingly or unknowingly.

For example, an employee with expert power or even referent power might be threatening to a manager who is very concerned with having formal power. In close relationships, formal power might be tacit and based on cultural norms, which can make navigating conflict tricky if this is not understood or discussed.

3 Common power dynamics

To expand on our discussion of different interactions within relationships, it is helpful to hone in on some common themes in relationships. Although these might apply more specifically in intimate relationships, it can be useful to study them, to see how some elements of these power dynamics might play out in different situations. 

According to a PsychCentral article by Susan Fishman, there are three main types of interplay that can occur:

1. Demand and withdrawal

This occurs when one partner makes demands on the other, who responds by withdrawing. One party feels like their needs are not being met and the other feels overwhelmed by responsibility. The second party then withdraws out of rebellion.

2. Distancer and pursuer

Similar to the interplay above, this involves one party being more invested in the relationship, often taking more initiative. This involves the interaction of different attachment styles, which are influenced by how secure you felt in your relationships with your primary caregivers.

3. Fear/shame

This interaction has to do with fear and anxiety, which is experienced by one party due to trauma. In turn, this affects the other partner, who can also experience anxiety or shame or respond with avoidance.

These examples show how different relationship patterns can develop, based on how power is shared in a relationship, and how people act to get their emotional needs met. Understanding these types of interconnections can be helpful when addressing imbalances of power, whether in a personal or professional setting.

Tips to help achieve a balance of power

We’ve given an overview of power dynamics and how they work, as well as some examples. However, how do you constructively address imbalances?

While the exact interaction might differ when it comes to personal or professional relationships and will be influenced by levels of intimacy and closeness, the same principles apply to addressing any power imbalance.

Some tips for managing these imbalances include the following:

  1. Establish clear boundaries. This can help initiate a solid foundation from the start of a relationship/group project so that everyone knows exactly who is responsible for what. 
  2. Define goals. Having a shared set of goals can help minimise any imbalances by creating a shared focus or list of goals.
  3. Openness and honesty. Being open and honest can help to diffuse any toxic dynamics by bringing them out into the open.
  4. Seek to understand. By trying to understand all of the interactions at play in any relationship or group setting, you’ll be more equipped to deal with any conflict. You also then have the tools to effectively motivate employees and manage wellness in a professional setting or meet another person’s needs in a close relationship.  
  5. Get feedback. To learn better interpersonal skills and improve communication, it’s important to get feedback. This can help to create a transparent culture, where everyone involved is constantly working towards more harmonious and constructive relationships.

Improve Your Interpersonal Communication Skills with SACAP Global

If you’re interested in learning more about how to navigate complex relationship patterns register for our Advanced Interpersonal Communication micro-credential.

This short course will equip you with the tools to understand your own emotions. You’ll also learn to identify patterns of behaviour in different relationships, especially when it comes to power dynamics.

Contact us to learn more and find out about our upcoming short courses.

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