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How Power Dynamics Might Be Hurting Your Ability to Give Effective Feedback to Colleagues and Subordinates

Posted by Mary Bradbury Jones on July 14, 2016

Power DynamicsNo matter what industry you’re in, there’s bound to be some kind of workplace politics at play. People are always striving to look good, jockeying for a promotion or strengthening connections with the “right” people. And more often than not in these situations, there is some kind of power dynamics in play.

These power dynamics become even more evident under certain stressful situations, like when you’re giving feedback to another colleague in the office. Giving feedback to others is a key part to team success, but you need to consider who you’re giving it to, their position, and how responsive they might be based upon the power dynamics at play.

The Basics of Power Dynamics

Whether it’s at home or in the workplace, power dynamics sets the tone at almost every level of human interaction. Almost primordial in nature, these underlying dynamics can influence your decision to speak up during meetings with supervisors or shape an entire organization’s approach to client engagement. Power dynamics even guide and influence the way governments treat their citizens, respond to dissent, and approach reforms.

One of the key aspects to power dynamics that tends to play out in the workplace is the notion of “power distance,” which is formally defined as the “extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” On one end of the spectrum you have individuals that prefer hierarchical structures, deferring to a higher authority for important decisions.

>>> Learn more about Giving Effective Feedback

Examples of high power distance social structures might be the military or large corporations. On the other side, low power distance de-emphasizes status, encourages informality and values a collaborative decision-making process. We might consider some of the more “forward thinking” tech companies like Google as organizing their teams in more of a low power distance model. They want input and ideas from different employee levels, without valuing the input of one over the other simply due to job title or rank.

In general, power distance is important because it affects how the “powerful” interact with the “powerless” in any setting. In fact, research indicates that when powerful people are put together into a single group, they’ll actually vie for the same level of authority and deference they receive in their roles outside the group.

Types of Power Dynamics

In order to understand power dynamics and how they play out in the workplace, we’ll need to look at the different types dynamics. Things generally play out in one of three different ways: designated, distributive, and integrative power.

  • Designated Power - The kind of formal or “hard” power conferred by a position or job title. In the workplace this often plays out in a form of coercive power, where an individual is given the sole authority to punish or reward employees based on their discretion.
  • Distributive Power - This is when you’re able to achieve your objective despite resistance of others, regardless of job title. One person dominates another or vice versa. Think about the person who uses their connections within the company to get what they want, despite not necessarily having the highest ranking position.
  • Integrative Power - Where multiple parties share power, collaborating to create a “win win” situation. Think of “opposites attract” scenarios in marriage where one spouse is practical and the other artistic. Rather than butt heads, they compromise their strengths for a mutually beneficial relationship.

How Do Power Dynamics Affect Giving Feedback to Colleagues?

As you probably realize by now, the effectiveness of the feedback you give to colleagues will depend upon which types of power dynamics are at play. In today’s workplace, this is especially true when it comes to the power dynamics of diversity. For example, Asian cultures tend illustrate more power distance, deferring to figures of authority. When receiving feedback, they often take it to be “the final word” even if they might disagree with the narrative.

Or take gender, males and females tend to use different metaphors when describing power dynamics. Males might use military-based metaphors in feedback, citing that someone really “battled it out” during a project while they were “second in command.” When giving feedback to a female colleague, consider minimizing these kinds of metaphors and instead use language based on preferences that might be observed from how females within the organization tend to interact.

Having to take note of all these different cultural and gender dynamics can make it difficult to communicate with a diverse group of colleagues and subordinates. But there are steps you can take to be more effective in that regard. Make sure to build out a diverse professional network both within and outside your organization, so you’ll be exposed to how power dynamics play out cross-culturally and gender wise. Also don’t be afraid to ask for honest feedback on your own feedback in a non-threatening setting. If you’ve nurtured relationships the right way with colleagues of different ethnic groups, they’ll be glad to provide insight and constructive feedback on how best to communicate with their group based on how they tend to perceive power dynamics.

Effective feedback requires an understanding the basics of power dynamics and power distance depending on the background of the individual. By taking power dynamics into consideration the next time you evaluate a subordinate, you’ll be much more likely to get your point across and attain a positive outcome for everyone involved.

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