Dealing with Power Imbalances in Negotiations

By Abiramy Uthirakumaran

In an ideal world, a negotiation would have a level playing field for all the people involved. This would mean that the outcome of the negotiation is fair as no one had the “upper hand” during the negotiation. However, it’s not unusual for negotiations to have one party holding more power than the other party in the negotiation. Think, for example, about a salary negotiation between an employer and a potential new employee. There’s an obvious imbalance of power there – the employer has the power of agreeing to the salary amount and deciding whether to proceed with hiring the potential new employee. The potential new employee, on the other hand, may feel intimidated by the power the employer holds because he or she needs the job.

Sources of power:

Being aware of whether there will be a difference in power during the negotiation is a helpful first step in dealing with power imbalances. This involves getting familiar with where power comes from. Here are some of the sources that give negotiators power:

  1. Positions in an organization: power is based on the role one occupies in an organization. The level of power depends on the title, responsibility, and the duties associated with the role (e.g., having the responsibility to hire employees), and it also depends on the amount of control one has over the resources within the organization (e.g., having control over the budget for hiring new employees).
  2. Strong alternatives: having a strong alternative option that the negotiator may pursue if the negotiation isn’t successful is another source of power for negotiators. For instance, in the earlier example of the salary negotiation, the potential new employee may have more power if he or she is already working in a position that has an attractive salary. As a result, the potential new employee can reject a salary offer that is not attractive to him or her and continue working in his or her current position.

What can you do?

Another step for dealing with power imbalances in a negotiation is taking action to balance the power. There are steps you can take to increase your power in a negotiation. Some steps include:

  1. Finding a strong alternative. Having another option that you can pursue if the negotiation doesn’t go well may make you feel more confident during the negotiation. This may also help you feel less vulnerable and prevent you from constantly giving in to the other side’s demands.
  2. Doing your research. Having information gives you more power in the negotiation. Find what you need to support your arguments. For example, a customer negotiating with a car salesman for the price of the car is better off if she or he knows the price that the car is sold for at other dealerships. This knowledge may prevent the customer from getting tricked into paying a higher price for the car than what it’s worth.
  3. Combining your power. Finding others that want the same outcome as you and negotiating with them will allow you to increase the collective bargaining power for your position. For example, if an employee wanted to get health insurance coverage, he or she can bring other employees at the company to negotiate with the manager. The collective bargaining power increases, as opposed to the employee asking the manager for a health insurance coverage by himself or herself.

Contemplating whether there will be any power imbalances at play in your negotiation and finding ways to address the imbalance is time worth spending when you prep for your negotiation.