5 Potent Relational Dynamics at Play in Power Differentials

Women working in store“I feel like I am not listened to and that what I say doesn’t count.” “I feel humiliated for speaking up.” “I’m afraid of losing my job if I am critical.” “I’m expected to take care of things that are not my responsibility.” “I feel used and taken advantage of.” “My supervisor can’t change. It’s just the way it is, and I have to accept it.” “It’s hopeless! I’ve tried, and nothing changes.” “Every time I do the right thing, it feels like I get punished.” “I can’t believe my boss doesn’t get how we feel about him and what kind of harm he’s causing.” “My therapist says she wants all kinds of feedback, but when I give her negative feedback, she just turns it around on me.” “My feelings and opinions just aren’t taken seriously.” “It’s just not safe.” “It’s really unjust, but it is more peaceful to just let it go.” I feel like it is just hopeless to have an effect, so I don’t invest myself.” “I can’t believe it. She just said no. And she’s my friend.” “He’s always too busy.” “There’s no acknowledgement, no follow-up from what I say.” “She must be right.”

Sound familiar?

These are feelings and experiences frequently expressed by people when they are in what I call a down-power role. People in therapy, students, supervisees, employees, medical patients, and parishioners, among others, are in roles with less power and influence than their up-power therapists, teachers, supervisors, employers, doctors, and clergy. This greater power is an automatic accompaniment to professional or positional power and, in fact, is embedded in the up-power role. Role power is earned or assigned. Role power is an add-on to the personal power we all have and need in our lives. Think of it like a scarf or mantle of additional power and responsibility that one puts on when one is in an up-power role.

Often without recognizing it, we may move between up- and down-power roles multiple times in a day. At the dentist, we are down-power. As a teacher, we are up-power. With a police officer, we are down-power. This power difference, although it has vital functional and emotional value, creates relational dynamics that, when misused, are reflected in the italicized statements above.

Therapist, supervisor, teacher, director, clergy, doctor, police officer: these are the positional power roles that carry an especially strong power difference. The stronger the power difference, the greater the vulnerability and risk for those who are down-power. The strength of the power differential is directly related to the amount of risk.

I use the terminology up-power roles and down-power positions because they are simply directional words, not necessarily evaluative words. By the way, there are other up-power roles in which the power difference is not very great (although still present), or the power difference is temporary—waiter in a restaurant, committee chair, lecturer. Virtually all jobs have some up-power responsibilities for assessment and final decision-making.

The power-differential effects that I want to describe are the relational dynamics that are most potent in high-difference roles, such as teacher, therapist, clergy, supervisor, and director. This information may be useful to you when you are in a challenging down-power position and want to have some positive influence but not get hurt or feel put down. It may also be useful when you are in an up-power role and things aren’t smooth, or you’re getting a lot of pushback, shutdown, passivity, or anger. Reviewing these dynamics can help you make self-corrections that can shift the relationship for the better.

The dynamics are as follows:

  1. All power/no power
  2. Skewed impacts
  3. 150% principle
  4. Power blindness
  5. Power with heart

Let’s explore these dynamics in greater depth.

1. All Power/No Power

There is a misconception, based on witnessing or experiencing abuses of power, that up-power means “all power” and down-power means “no power.” This is a self-reinforcing dynamic. The more the up-power person over-identifies with the increased power accompanying their role, the more the down-power person feels powerless and disempowered; meanwhile, the more the down-power person experiences or assumes no power, the more the up-power person experiences or assumes they have all the power.

Without understanding the difference between role power and personal power (and also status power), it is easy and natural to think of role power as if it were personal power. As a therapist, it is not healthy to take a person’s suffering home. Better to leave it at the office. As an airline pilot, it is not healthy to treat your partner and children as if they were staff or passengers under your command.

There are also ways in which people get stuck in an up-power role even when they have taken off their role mantel. A member of the clergy, for example, may not be able to go to a meeting without being expected to hold up-power role responsibilities. We are generally unaware of how frequently we change from up-power roles to down-power positions.

2. Skewed Impacts

In the relationship between up-power and down-power, it is acceptable and a responsibility of the up-power role to give feedback—both positive and challenging. For those in a down-power position, it is fine to give positive feedback, but it can be risky to give negative feedback or even suggestions for what would work better. Challenging feedback can be met with humiliation, putdown, demotion, or even loss of a job.

  • Skewed feedback loop: Up-power persons who don’t understand the risk for those in down-power may get a skewed sense of how well they are doing and how well-liked they are, as they receive little negative feedback. A skillful up-power person will seek out challenging feedback and constructive suggestions. Further, this person will be transparent in their communications about how they are responding and why.
  • Skewed expectations: We tend to idealize and/or devalue those in up-power roles. Therapists are often unrealistically seen as (and expected to be) perfect. Then when they make a mistake, they are equally unrealistically devalued.

3. 150% Principle

The 150% principle is an important concept. The up-power role is weighted toward responsibility, while the down-power role is weighted toward risk. One of the responsibilities that goes with the up-power role is what I call the 150% principle. While all are 100% responsible for the health of the relationship, the ones in the up-power roles are even more responsible—hence the 150% metaphor.

On a day-to-day basis, this attitude means the person in the up-power role needs to be 50% more active in tracking for and resolving working-relationship problems and issues, earning trust, holding the big picture, demonstrating listening and responding to feedback (especially challenging feedback), attending to safety, and being fair and respectful. This is a tall order, but it is part of using role power wisely and well.

4. Power Blindness

The socially dominant concept of power as force, exploitation, and manipulation often leads people in up-power roles to disown, deny, or downplay their increased power and influence by virtue of their role. This power blindness causes much harm, albeit harm that is subtle, confusing, and difficult to address.

Power blindness is particularly a problem for people in the helping professions: teachers, supervisors, therapists, and clergy, all of whom are often trying to help people heal from the wounds of power abuse and thus should be particularly sensitive to misuses of power. They don’t want to cause harm, yet they frequently fail to understand how their up-power roles heighten their influence, just as turning up the volume on the television increases the sound.

  • Heightened influence: A chief judge described writing a memo with a question in it that didn’t ask for an immediate answer, but within minutes there was a knock on her door from one of the judges wanting to respond. Her non-urgent memo had the effect of full volume simply because it came from her. Power blindness also happens in organizations devoted to equality and the avoidance of abuses of power. Role power is not the problem. The problem is how role power is used. For therapists, for example, pretending that they have little or no increased power and influence interferes with their ability to make accurate assessments, see the big picture, take charge as needed, and set and maintain appropriate boundaries. When leaders in organizations don’t recognize or give away the responsibilities that go with their role, the organization may suffer from chaos, confusion, and decreased productivity.
  • Friendship/role confusion: When persons in up- and down-power roles are friends, it is even more important to be conscious and aware of the times when one friend is wearing the add-on mantel of role power. The responsibilities of up-power may on occasion need to trump the desires of friendship.

5. Power with Heart

The core of “right use of power” is the ability to stay connected. Staying connected involves standing in your strength while staying in your heart. Both strength and compassion are necessary aspects of power.

When in a down-power position, you can be wiser and less victimized by misuses of power. When you are in an up-power role, you can be more sensitive and responsive to your impact.

Many shadow aspects can interfere with a leader’s ability and even interest in staying in a relationship. Here are two of them: social distance and the ability to take action without interference. Both of these conditions have leadership value. Social distance helps give a leader a view of the whole person or organization that is essential for good care and decision-making. The ability to take action without interference allows the leader to take charge and make difficult decisions that move things along and are for the good of the whole even though not everyone affected agrees. However, in seeing the forest, one’s connection to individual trees can get lost or distorted. Compassion is lost when individuals become cogs in the wheel of progress and financial success.

An unfortunate but natural result of being able to take action without interference is that leaders begin to be more impulsive, more self-oriented, and less respectful in their relationships. Helping professionals and leaders need to understand this dynamic in order to be alert to ways they may unconsciously be losing compassion and connection.

It might be interesting now to go back to the beginning of this article and look at the statements. Can you relate each statement to one or more of the relational dynamics described? Do you have personal experiences with any of these role-power issues? To repeat, understanding and working with these relational dynamics may be empowering, whatever role you are in. When in a down-power position, you can be wiser and less victimized by misuses of power. When you are in an up-power role, you can be more sensitive and responsive to your impact. Staying connected is key. Maybe it’s not so hopeless, after all.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Hollis

    February 17th, 2016 at 8:41 AM

    Why should there ever be something like a power up or power down role? Why can’t we all be recognized as equals?

  • Gracie

    February 17th, 2016 at 1:39 PM

    If there is someone who makes you potentially feel unsafe then why continue to have this person in your life? You know that you are far better than being demeaned and belittled all the time!

  • timothy

    February 18th, 2016 at 9:28 AM

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people could use the power that they have for good, and not for making someone feel bad?

  • Jade

    February 20th, 2016 at 5:22 AM

    I work for someone who honestly never lets me forget that she is the one in charge. Like I know that, she doesn’t have to throw that in my face all the time. And it’s not like I would even want her job, but I thought that a whole management tings was about motivating your team to do more?
    The way that she works with all of us I think that there are some of us who intentionally do as little as possible, not because this is our work ethic but because we hope deep down inside that it will wind up reflecting poorly on her .

  • Olivia

    February 22nd, 2016 at 10:35 AM

    I have been in a work environment where the person who was the office manager would also try to be friends with everyone.
    She had no logical concept that this role would never work, that there was too much of a perception that what we said outside of the office she may could use against us later so we all kind of shut her out.

  • jake

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    My suspicion would strongly be that it is usually the person in the up power position who knows it and is the one making a big deal of the differential. I am usually not the one in power and while I may somewhat defer to a superior I usually take my cues from them. If they act like they have that superiority complex and expect me to feed into that, then it is pretty belittling.

  • Cedar Barstow

    March 6th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    Hello All, Thank you for reading my article. Hollis: We are absolutely all equals in our humanness and in deserving to be treated with dignity and respect. We are not all equals in our roles. Would you want your Doctor not to have a role that gives him responsibility for your care and the education needed to provide it? Timothy: Yes, indeed. And what needs to change for using power for good is that we need a new model for what power is–from power is force, to power is to be used for the good of all. Jade and Olivia: The issues you are describing are ones that fit right in with the article–wouldn’t it be great if your supervisors were aware and sensitive to these perils of power. Jake: Yes, I think your experience is very often true, but also there is the other experience of the person in the up-power role disowning their responsibilities and trying to be a friend–resulting in chaos and mistrust.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.