Power and Rank: Hidden Causes of Conflict Escalation

Recently, I was invited to explore with a community of mediators, the impact of power and rank dynamics in conflict.

It’s not just mediators who need to have a sharp eye on power and rank differences, but managers, HR and conflict management practitioners who support individuals to engage in challenging conversations and negotiations.

Consider these cases:

  • A disability service provider refuses to pay attention to a client’s complaints.
  • A young woman negotiates her return to work following parental leave.
  • A man who sustained permanent nerve damage during a routine operation enters mediation with hospital representatives.
  • A refugee dealing with a public official is told to be less emotional about being reunited with his family.

In each of these cases there is a significant power difference between the institutions and consumers or individuals involved. These rank differences are reflected in the gender, ethnicity, age and economic status of the parties, amongst other things.

Perhaps you also noticed significant differences in the level of choice and resources available to the parties. For those with a lot riding on the outcome of negotiations or mediations, the consequences can be potentially life changing, hence the vulnerability and stress levels that these institutions and individuals bring to their negotiations cannot be compared. Negotiation and rank are themes I’ve explored in some detail previously.

One of the key functions of mediators is to help the parties to a dispute to recognise each other’s needs and interests. We need to be aware of how easy or difficult it is for parties to articulate and advocate for their needs.

Clients with lower rank, on the other hand, tend to worry and doubt themselves more. As a result they may seek external feedback on their ideas and approval before instigating actions.

In ‘Why Can’t They Think Strategically‘ I described some of the practical and cognitive pressures experienced by people in low rank positions who rarely experience high levels of autonomy. The challenge for leaders and helping professionals is to provide adequate information so that people feel confident to act, without become paternalistic. If we love to be needed or are attached to our own expertise and authority, we will struggle to do this. Instead we will act in ways that maintain our high rank.

When we are unaware of power and rank dynamics we can inadvertently contribute to conflict escalation. While these escalations can appear rapid and often volatile, they are rarely out of the blue. When practitioners develop an understanding of power and rank differences they see that these explosions are often predictable.

Understanding Your Own Power and Rank

To the extent that conflict management and HR practitioners share the privileges that come with high rank and status, they can forget that conversations are not taking place on a level playing field. It’s common to underestimate how clients may perceive our rank as reflected in our gender, our economic status, our race and ethnicity.

When we enjoy high rank it’s easy to overlook the struggles others encounter and to regard them as minor concerns that may be fundamental to the other’s survival or peace of mind. We start to take things for granted.

Rank Is Dynamic

Yet, even our own experience of rank is far from static. We can enjoy high rank in one situation and experience our sense of personal power quite differently when someone else walks into the room. Rank is contextual.

Similarly, the experience of divorce can radically shift a client’s perception of their personal power. Many mediation clients note their discomfort in social situations and the shock of engaging with mortgage lenders as a single income earner.

Unwary practitioners, who have not processed their own history with power and rank, can find themselves entranced by signals of status and high power. Imagine you have just been asked to mediate a case involving someone with high public profile, someone rich, famous and influential. What would your immediate reaction be? It’s these primitive reactions to power, its potential to seduce us that we need to watch closely.

Understanding of power and rank dynamics radically influences practitioner’s sensitivity to their client’s experience.

What’s more it causes conflict to escalate, hampering efforts at resolution.


How would you evaluate your own rank?

In what ways might others perceive you having high rank?

In what ways do you sometimes (or often) see yourself having low rank?

How can you reconcile these differing perceptions?

What influence does rank play in your interactions with clients?

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