This blog post draws largely from ideas presented in an article entitled “Power and Conflict” by Peter T. Coleman. I also refer to ideas about the competitive approach from conflict theorists, Thomas and Kilmann.
In contrast with pleasing, we now explore the competitive approach to conflict, which involves using “power over” tactics to get what we want. Do any of these workplace-based comments sound familiar?
- “Ellen is always trying to control me. Even when I’m trying to “follow her rules,” it’s like she wants to catch me doing something wrong.”
- “Jeff never backs me up in our meetings, even when we’ve come in prepared to present our case to the general manager.”
- “Tom thinks he knows more about this than I do, so he keeps shutting me down in our meetings.”
- “Why does my boss always take credit for my work as if my ideas were his? Can’t he just acknowledge what I’ve done?”
When we use the competitive approach, we are actively seeking to fulfill our own goals using whatever power is necessary to win our position. When we compete, we disregard other’s concerns and goals so that we can get what we want. With competition, we use power for self-interest, not for collective goals. The competitive approach to conflict has its time and place (think civil rights, child advocates, enforcing your teenager’s curfew), but we may develop blind spots when we overuse this approach.
In our current social context, we have a president who enjoys using one main approach to handling conflict: the competitive approach. Rather than using a diversity of approaches to conflict, such as avoiding, accommodating, compromising, or collaborating, we have an executive who competes in nearly every arena of conflict that he enters. His behavior gives us a perfect example for examining the pros and cons of fixating on one conflict approach to handle a wide variety of personal and national conflicts.
While there are diverse interpretations and opinions about President Trump’s competitive approach, we can be sure of many natural consequences of overusing a competitive approach. While a competitive approach is widely acceptable in our western culture, many people are feeling the backlash and oversimplification that comes with using only one approach for conflict management. Without the nuances and graces that avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating bring to the table, we are stuck with many less-than-appealing results as a people and as a nation.
In this article, we explore the tendencies of high and low power individuals and groups, and what happens to the powerful and the less powerful when people overuse the competitive approach to conflict. Rather than drawing conclusions from Trump’s presidency, I will allow you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions from the conflict theory we explore. Whether on the national scale or in the home, overusing the competitive approach will eventually bring weakness to the user. Ultimately, human relationships involve more complex interconnections than the mere top-down influence of the more powerful on the less powerful in both large and small conflicts.
Defining and Identifying Sources of Power
To begin talking about the competitive or “power over” approach, we must first discuss power. We simply define power as the ability to bring about desired outcomes. We can try to dominate others and exercise “power over” others or exercise jointly held cooperative power as “power with” others. “Power with” is enhanced through collaborative approaches to conflict. Yet, generally, people gravitate towards coercive, top-down or competitive power use, to get people to do things that they might not want to do.
To build a framework for how to effectively handle the conflicts we encounter, whether competitively or otherwise, we first look at what types of power we may have and what cultural myths about power influence our use of the different types of power.
Three Main Types of Power
There are three main types of power that we can seek, find, and use in our lives. These three types include:
- Environmental power—the ability to influence our environment
- Relationship power-the ability to influence other people
- Personal power-the ability to satisfy our own personal desires
While we may enjoy all three types of power in a situation, more often, we seek trade-offs by using one source of power to gain or exchange with another. These three types of power may or may not be interchangeable or constant, but remain dependent on shifting circumstances and dynamic relationships with others.
For example, to make sure my spouse and kids eat healthy food, I may remove all sweets from our kitchen and pantry (environmental power) during a normal school and work day. While I wield environmental power over the food in the kitchen, I must consider the possibility of decreased relationship power if I do not discuss the idea with my spouse or kids who may want to keep eating sweets. In short, when I assert power in one area, I may weaken my power in another area.
Myths about Power
We are subject to many cultural myths about power that may limit our ability to resolve (and even avoid) conflicts effectively. From conflict theorist, Peter Coleman, we learn that there are four main myths about power in our culture. These myths include:
- Power and control are located in a physical location (i.e., the White House or the boss’ office)
- The amount of power to go around is fixed (only so much power to divide up)
- Power only flows in one direction (people usually think it’s just top-down)
- Power is only real if it is held or used in competitive terms (we must gain power against someone or something versus expanding cooperative “power with” those who are less powerful)
Considering these myths, people differ in their core assumptions about power: is it limited or expandable? Is it competitive or cooperative? Is it equal or unequal? As cultures, we develop and often maintain power inequalities that make sure that certain patterns and practices keep the powerful in power. So many current conflicts both in the home and across the nation center on these power inequalities.
In Western culture, especially in the United States, we tend to think of power in terms of who has it and who does not. This “two polar ends” type of thinking comes across as the rich versus the poor, the Democrats versus the Republicans, the religious versus the non-religious, the black versus the white, and so on. Instead of acknowledging complex relationships that involve sophisticated power dynamics, we put things too simply with terms like the “haves” and the “have nots.”
In addition, we often see power in terms of finite or limited quantities. So, if you have more power, I must have less. Much of our society functions around the idea of power being a limited item like pieces of a pie. We simplify our views on power when our relationships are truly much more highly interwoven and mutually influential than our common explanations.
We also tend to think that everybody wants power, so we try to take what power or control we can get when it’s available. In this limited “pie of power” scenario, we encounter and even create all kinds of conflicts when we’d probably rather work, play, and enjoy life with greater peace.
Unfortunately, people tend to get fixated on using only one power strategy in conflicts, especially if they perceive themselves as having more power than the other party. We now look at the tendencies of the powerful and the less powerful to explore how over-relying on one power strategy actually weakens an individual’s or a group’s effective power.
Tendencies of High Power Individuals or Groups
As Peter Coleman carefully explains in his article on conflict and power, “The powerful tend to like power, use it, justify having it, and attempt to keep it (Coleman, 124). Generally, those who have power tend to enjoy their power so they try to safeguard it against changes.
In addition, the powerful who use the competitive approach usually exhibit the following tendencies:
- May attempt to dominate lower power individuals or groups using pressure and contentious tactics
- If challenged by lower power individuals or groups, the more powerful tend to use repression or ambivalent tolerance
- May try to use force
- Likely resistant to implementing any real change to alter power relationships
Benefits of Using the Competitive Approach
Those who competitively approach conflicts tend to enjoy the following benefits:
- More personally satisfied
- Less personally discontent
- Have longer time perspective
- Enjoy more freedom to act
- More time to plan for the future
- Develop rationales or reasons for maintaining power (i.e., “I’m smarter or more morally correct than those with less power.” Think of the wall with Mexico.)
Naturally, the powerful tend to like to maintain the status quo so they can continue to enjoy these benefits. But, overuse of the competitive approach may lead to many unhealthy and potentially weakening outcomes described below.
Drawbacks of the Competitive Approach
There are certainly drawbacks to using "power over" or competitive approaches to conflicts with less powerful individuals or groups. Some of these drawbacks for the person who continually competes include:
- May develop the taste for power
- Experience an Inflated sense of self
- Tendency towards devaluing those with less power
- May be tempted to use power illegally to increase personal power
- More likely to pay less attention to less powerful people
- May be more susceptible to using stereotypes about the less powerful because they don’t pay as much attention to the less powerful
- Often neglect to analyze and underestimate the possible power sources of the less powerful
- Likely to meet resistance and alienation from low power groups
The lack of attention to the less powerful and the tendency towards stereotypes and using force should raise a few red flags among us. Not only do we see these tendencies across national and international politics, but we see these tendencies in the workplace, in the community, and at home. When we underestimate, devalue, and stereotype others who seem less powerful, we weaken our fundamental capacity to achieve cooperative goals. In our complex society with great need for cooperation, we need to be aware of not only the powerful, but the seemingly less powerful.
Tendencies of Lower Power Groups and Individuals
In contrast with the more powerful, lower power groups and individuals tend to experience the following:
- More dependent on others
- Have shorter time perspectives
- Unable to plan far ahead
- More aware of power and privilege imbalances between parties
- Generally, discontent
As described above, many people exhibit the tendencies of lower power individuals. Think of co-workers and children at home who do not participate in decision making processes and are not trusted with important tasks. Generally, we are familiar with the less powerful peoples’ discontent and inability to envision a better future because we sometimes experience being less powerful ourselves. But, if we are usually the one using power over tactics in conflict, we are less likely to even notice these tendencies, or to even care about what the less powerful are experiencing.
Finally, there are natural outcomes of the powerful overusing “power over” or competitive approaches to conflict. From the French Revolution to our three-year old daughter’s tantrums, we have myriad examples of how our “power over” tactics fail to bring about desired results. Such over-reliance on “power over” tactics in conflicts brings about a wide variety of undesirable outcomes.
Negative Outcomes of Overuse of the Power Over/Competitive Approach
While the powerful tend to want to preserve the status quo, overusing “power over” or competitive approaches to conflict brings about a variety of negative consequences that threaten balances in human relationships. These negative outcomes include:
- Alienation of less powerful parties
- Resistance by the less powerful to those in power
- Limitation of power holders’ ability to use other types of power based on trust
- Increased demand for scrutiny and control of subordinates
- Greater distrust among the less powerful
- Undermining of the powerful parties’ relationships with followers
- Compromise of goal achievement
Ultimately, Coleman claims that “Excessive reliance on a power-over strategy eventually proves to be costly as well as largely ineffective” (Coleman, 122). Given our natural tendencies and the common negative outcomes of overusing the competitive approach to conflict, we benefit from re-thinking our overall strategy with conflict.
We have options beyond competing. Rather than relying primarily on power-over tactics with co-workers, family, friends, and even strangers, we benefit by envisioning a broader range of tools for dealing with conflict. We can learn to strategically and effectively avoid, accommodate, compromise, avoid, and collaborate in appropriate situations to meet not only our own goals, but others’ goals, too. As we expand how we handle diverse conflicts, we will create stronger relationships and far better conflict outcomes now and in the future. In short, we have choices, and we should use those choices in conflict to get better results every day.