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Power without Status Drives Interpersonal Conflict

A team is a relationship institution. A reality of relationships is, conflict will arise, sooner or later, either out in the open or concealed. Organisations, teams assign particular roles to people, which is of course necessary and important.  However, the issue of status and power in a role very seldom receives any attention. In the process, certain roles receive a high degree of status with little power, if any.  As oppose to some roles that have a low degree of status with a high degree of power. As would be expected, status and power do affect social interactions and relationships.

Role Labels – More Than Meets the Eye   

Role labels are there to define the focus of attention. They reflect expectations of competency. They also carry either a positive or negative message to others (e.g. shift worker vs. team member). However, some feelings of discomfort and tension could be associated with certain roles that trigger unconscious role behaviours in management and operations which are the root cause of many interpersonal conflicts. That is because of a mismatch between status and power relating to the specific role. Unresolved interpersonal conflict diminishes trust, cohesion, employee satisfaction, commitment while increasing counterproductive behaviours. In short, destructive conflict harms individual and team performance. Identifying its determinants is therefore crucial to build effective teams. Status and power are the foundational bases of hierarchical differentiation in groups, organisations, and societies. Respected and admired individuals often gain access to valued resources; similarly, having control over important outcomes and resources often leads to respect and admiration. However, despite their covariance and mutual reinforcement, status and power are conceptually distinct. Some roles afford status without power (e.g. an emeritus professor) whereas others afford power without status (e.g. a reimbursement clerk)

Status

Status often leads to helping, cooperation, advice giving, and justice toward others and, in so doing, meets the need for positive self-worth and affiliation. Put simply, having status feels good and leads to positive treatment of others. Lacking status, on the other hand, is psychologically aversive, disliked. Low-status individuals are also less liked and influential, which helps explaining the negative feelings and emotions associated with lacking status.

Power

There is widespread support for the notion that power facilitates action. Power liberates its holders to act on their own goals and interests. In contrast, lacking power inhibits action and goal pursuit. As such, power allows people to express their true feelings, attitudes, value orientations, and dispositions. They experience emotions of authenticity in social interactions. Alternatively, lacking of power is likely to reduce the degree to which an individual in low-status roles expresses his/her thoughts and feelings because doing so would bring the risk of social and material sanctions. The crux of these findings is that (a) power liberates people to act on their true feelings and (b) these feelings are often shaped by the status associated with their roles.

Practical Implications         

The following implications are for serious consideration when assigning team roles;

  1. Power without status is a predictor of interpersonal conflict. Team leaders should avoid creating roles that lack status but afford control over valued resources and outcomes. Low-status/high power individuals are likely to treat others in a demeaning and disrespectful way. Thus finding ways to raise the status of specific roles that have power but confer little respect may prove to be an effective strategy. 
  2. When granting additional power to employees, managers would be wise to ensure that increases in role status accompany these increases in role power. For example, when a role holder is given control over additional resources, it may be prudent for team leaders to publicly laud the importance of that role for the organisation. This social proof approach to status enhancement may be particularly effective because status is a collectively defined social construct.
  3. Additionally, efforts to enhance the status of particular roles will be most successful when spearheaded by organisational members whose roles have high status. That is because high-status individuals enjoy greater influence over others’ opinions.
  4. Managers may help prepare employees for the experience of holding power while lacking respect by highlighting productive ways of increasing one’s status (e.g. engaging in behaviours that facilitate respect in the eyes of others)
  5. Individuals in low-status roles (& low-power) would be best served by channelling their energy toward behaviours that will increase the status of their role