Power differences are inevitable in teams. Here are some ways to reduce the power imbalance as a manager.
I once joined a software team led by a person called Kris (not their real name). Kris had a fantastic technical background and enthusiastically shared their knowledge with the team. In feature design sessions, I noticed Kris would be the first to suggest a design approach, and ask, ‘What do you think? Do you have any feedback?’ Others would often provide a few comments, but rarely propose significant alternatives.
One day, our team had to rework how we sent emails to customers, so we held another design session. Kris was really excited by this area since they’d never worked so deeply on bulk-email sending. Kris took over the design session, furiously whiteboarding and sharing how they thought the design should look. I looked over to Elliot (not their real name), another developer who I knew had previously worked on large-scale email sending systems. Elliot remained silent.
Back then, I wondered why Elliot didn’t speak up. But now, I realize it was because of an uneven power dynamic. In this article, we’ll explore differences in power dynamics and what you can do as a manager to minimize them.
Recognizing that power differences exist
If you are a team manager, you will have more power over others in the team. You can make decisions on your team that others cannot, such as who stays or leaves, and how you reward or punish. You may not necessarily like how authority influences relationships, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. If you are in a manager role, there will always be a power imbalance between you and other team members, so recognize it.
For example, if you’ve transitioned into the manager role from being a team member, your relationships with others in your team will change. You might find that others share less information with you. You might find they gossip with each other, but exclude you. You might find they answer differently to your questions. These differences in behavior all stem from a shifting power dynamic.
Understanding that people respond differently to power
The power difference between your role and others in the team will differ from person to person.
Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory can help us understand one aspect contributing to the difference. Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist and professor, studied many different cultures and proposed a model to characterize differences. One element of this model is the Power Distance Index (PDI), which measures the difference in how a direct report responds to the authority of their manager.
Cultural norms significantly influence PDI. For example, Denmark has a low PDI (18), as there is a cultural norm where authority is expected to be challenged. Compare this to a country with a high PDI such as India (77), where people usually accept decisions from an authority, even if they are not great ones.
We also each have our own unique relationship with authority, influenced by factors such as how important we view personal agency, and our relationship with parental figures. For example, I remember working with one person best described as a ‘rebellious child’ archetype. They were a great team member until they felt like they were being told what to do by a perceived authority figure, at which point they’d often intentionally do the opposite of what was asked.
Five things you can do to manage the power imbalance
Now that you recognize that there will always be a power imbalance between you (the manager), and your team members, and that each individual in the team will respond differently to that, let’s explore some ways to manage this.
1. Be the last to contribute
To avoid being like Kris, from the start of the article, don’t start a team discussion with your opinion. Even if you think you have a great idea or perspective, wait until others have contributed their ideas before you provide yours. This is the best way to tap into the wisdom of your team.
2. Explicitly invite others to contribute
Team members with a high PDI will often wait for the authority to act, or state their opinion even if you wait, so explicitly invite others to share their thoughts.
3. Be more deliberate about your actions and comments
As a manager, people will copy your actions or respond to your words, so be very careful about what you say and how you act. I’ve seen so many teams thrown into chaos because of a throw-away comment, so pause before taking action.
4. Build trust with each individual
Although you can’t remove the power imbalance, the more trust you have with each individual, the more open and approachable they may be.
5. Explicitly delegate decision-making
Great managers grow people through delegation. By explicitly giving a decision to someone else in the team, you can both empower someone else and mitigate the decision-making. When you use this approach, you have to be comfortable about the decision they arrive at. If you override the decision, you’ll only amplify the power difference.
Great managers use their power for good
When I started leading teams, I had an uncomfortable relationship with the word power. Over time, I realized that pretending a power dynamic wasn’t there wasn’t helping me lead. Recognize that there will always be a power difference between you as a manager and your team, and accept that each person will respond differently to that. I hope some of the ideas above will help you manage this. Like the old Spiderman saying goes, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Use it wisely!