Balancing power between people and their surroundings © Pixabay

The power equilibrium
An insight into how an ombudsman thinks about power and what it really means to help people
1 Apr 2024

If you were to close your eyes and think about someone powerful, who would that be? What qualities does that person possess? How does that person exercise their power?

I used to be intrigued by characters like Robert McCall, played by Denzel Washington in the 2014 movie ‘The Equalizer.’ In the movie, McCall, a retired spy, used his unique skills to help people in trouble. While I find the use of power to help people compelling, my work as an ombudsman has changed how I think about power and what it really means to help people.

The social sciences usually define power as the ability to control or influence other people, resources or events. The thing that we often fail to speak about is how people obtain and exercise that ability. In the work that I do, I often help visitors grapple with two extremes on the spectrum of power. The first extreme is a mindset that power can only be exercised coercively, and the second extreme is a mindset of powerlessness.

The belief that power can only be exercised coercively implicitly embraces the threat, “Do what I want or else ….” This strategy might be necessary in specific circumstances but it is often viewed, however, as a blunt instrument when it comes to projecting influence as the use of coercive power can lead to unintended results. For example, people tend to resist coercion and occasionally respond with resentment and increased opposition. More importantly, wielding coercive power often damages relationships. Forced compliance also does not necessarily guarantee genuine cooperation or commitment. In fact, people may comply outwardly but harbor negative feelings and engage in passive resistance or sabotage. For these reasons, the exercise of coercive power creates a positively reinforcing cycle: each act of coercion requires more vigilance and coercion to sustain the power dynamics.

On the other hand, a belief of powerlessness also has negative consequences. A mindset of powerlessness can constrain the ability to find effective solutions to challenges. In these circumstances, one may avoid exploring potential solutions or take other proactive steps. Individuals with this mindset may give up in the face of difficulties rather than persevering and finding alternatives. Feeling powerless may contribute to a sense of hopelessness which then leads to possible detrimental effects on mental health. Worst of all, adopting a mindset of powerlessness can create a negative cycle. Powerlessness can compel people to avoid taking risks, thus limiting the potential for success and fulfillment and reinforcing the sense of a lack of power.

When helping people at either extreme, it helps me to think of a power equilibrium: a state of balance in the expression of power between people within a given context. The power equilibrium comes into play when you ask yourself two questions: have I given the person the space to express their needs and interests, and has the other person given me the space to express my own needs and interests? The answers to those questions will help determine how much you will need to adjust your levels of assertiveness and receptiveness.

For example, I often speak to visitors who believe they must exercise power coercively. In most cases, the rationale for doing this rests with a desire to hold the other person accountable. The manager who tells someone that they must do something in a particular way or it will be reflected negatively in their performance appraisal, uses performance accountability as a frame of reference. On the other hand, the staff member who tells a supervisor to stop behaving in a certain way or they will file a complaint, uses behavioral accountability as a frame of reference. While both may ultimately be a useful frame of reference, an interim step exists, one which acknowledges the disadvantages of wielding power coercively and entails exploring opportunities for each person to express their needs and interests. In many cases, this involves coaching someone to help them create the space for the other person to better express their needs and interests before asserting their accountability frame.

On the other hand, I also speak to visitors who feel powerless and believe they have no ability to influence a particular situation. In these circumstances, I often must resist the temptation to behave like Robert McCall. I have discovered that the best way to help someone is to help them rediscover their sense of agency. 

In some cases, it might be helping them become more assertive in setting their boundaries and in other cases, it might be helping them give voice to unexpressed needs or interests.

The idea of a power equilibrium can help staff members adjust whether they need to speak more or listen more. This approach to power can yield a vast array of benefits including allowing diverse voices to be heard, a more comprehensive understanding of complex issues, an increased sense of social inclusion, greater accountability and an increased sense of engagement. Fostering adaptability in expressing power empowers individuals at all levels. It also cultivates a workplace environment that thrives on diversity, understanding, inclusivity, accountability and heightened engagement. 

* Nicholas Theotocatos, Regional Ombudsman, United Nations Office at Geneva.
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