A power imbalance is one of the common aspects of employer- or supervisor-employee relationships. This is mostly due to the fact that one person’s life can greatly be affected by the other person who has greater authority. But as with all relationships, there is either a normal, healthy balance or there could be the exact opposite.
Conflict usually arises when the relationship between an employee and a supervisor becomes imbalanced. Because these kinds of workplace conflicts can often breed resentment and distrust, they are typically difficult to deal with. Here are the best practices for resolving power imbalances in the workplace.
Put HR On It
Workplace conflicts are typically brought to the attention of Human Resources staff. They are trained to provide an atmosphere of neutrality and authority to every negotiation they facilitate. Because they’re usually outside the department hierarchy where the conflict has arisen, HR employees are usually seen as neutral, and thus authoritative.
Look to the Future
Resentments and incidents between supervisors and employees linger and fester. Therefore, it can be counter-productive to direct their attention on the past if they are working together to resolve the conflict. Asking their opinion on what can be done often proves to be an effective strategy. Some questions that are worth raising include: what can the supervisor do differently to avoid this scenario? What will the employee do differently? You can also instruct them to imagine a future where the issues have been resolve and then ask them what’s different in it. Since the future has not happened yet, it is always viewed as a safe place and can be used to provide an anchor of safety during the discussions.
Employees may see themselves lacking in power so they feel as though they have no responsibility to act when dealing with power imbalances in the workplace. Even when this is true in your business, real conflict resolution requires action from both sides and you should make them understand this in order to promote a healthier environment. Demand for specifics, especially in their offers of improvement in behavior or attitude. Let them know that vague promises are not enough to ensure a long-term solution. The supervisor involved in the conflict must also be required to offer up real solutions, not just words.
Try Role Playing
Each side of the argument must be encouraged to see the issues from the other’s point of view. A useful tool that can be used for this goal is role playing. The experience of seeing your own behaviour reflected back at you by someone else is always worth overcoming doubts and nervousness in using this technique. The result can be eye-opening and educational.
Power imbalances usually corrode the trust that is necessary to achieve true workplace collaboration and harmony. A trained conflict resolution can do wonders in getting that trust back and helping your staff maintain and promote it. If your HR department can’t provide this, finding a third-party neutral may be in your best interests.