The Use of Power in Negotiations (Part I of III)

This article analyses the study of power and its effect on the understanding of negotiation and relationships flowing from any negotiation.

The study of power and its effect is important in the understanding of negotiation and relationships (or common ground) flowing from any negotiation. Every interaction and every social relationship, in side and outside organisations, involves an exercise of power. Gibson et al. (1991:329) see power as simply the ability to get things done the way you want them done. For example, the power of the manager who wants increased financial resources is his ability to get the desired resources.

Power involves a relationship between two or more people. Robert Dahl (1957:202), a political scientist, captures this important relational focus when he defines power: 'A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something B would not otherwise do.A person or group cannot have power in isolation power has to be exercised or deployed, or have the potential of being deployed in relation to some other person or group. Power is similar to a currency exchange it is meaningless unless linked or compared as an exchange commodity. Power is never linked to price, but always to value.

Parity in Power

The concept of parity in power is important in any relationship, since in negotiation parity of power is the perception, by one party, that the other side possesses the ability to counter any form of power with a similar or different form of power that would render the further escalation of power useless. As stated, parity in power refers to balance in power deployment. Parity in power is a key factor in the behaviour of a successful negotiator.

In literature, a distinction is made between power and authority. Authority is regarded as the formal power that a person has because of the position that he or she holds in an organisation (Gibson et al. 1989:330). Directives are orders from a manager in an authoritative positions and are followed because they must be followed. So, persons in higher positions have legal authority over subordinates in lower positions. Power is vested in a person's position, it is accepted by subordinates and it is used vertically in organisations.

On the other hand, influence is merely the potential of power deployment and is therefore the least amount of power that a person can deploy. To execute a karate punch on someone would demonstrate relative power:however, to warn the other side that the person has a black belt in karate would merely display the resource, i.e. the potential of it being deployed. However, when power is used as a threat, it is important that the negotiator remembers that a threat retains its power provided it is never executed. Upon delivery, a threat loses all its value.

Interpersonal Power

French and Raven (1959:150-167) suggested five interpersonal bases of power that are important to negotiators.

  • Legitimate power
  • Reward power
  • Coercive power
  • Expert power
  • Referent power

We will examine only Legitimate power in this edition of the Winner's Circle and will cover the remaining interpersonal power bases in subsequent editions.

Legitimate power

Legitimate power is derived from the ability to influence because of position. A person at a higher level has power over the people below. However, each person with legitimate power uses it with a personal flair.

Subordinates play a major role in the exercise of legitimate power. If subordinates view the power as legitimate, they comply. However, the culture, customs and value systems of an organisation determine the limits of legitimate power. In other words, there are times when people respond to directions from another, even directions they do not like, because they feel it is proper and legitimate for the other to tell them and proper (obligatory) for them to obey. This is legitimate power.

Legitimate power is used in many ways during negotiation. People with a lot of legitimate power could use their positions of authority to 'instruct' other parties to follow certain procedures. Depending on the authority of the individual, the other players in the negotiation could follow whatever is decided, relying totally on the abilities of the individual in authority.

Sometimes one party will use legitimate power as a tactic against another party by:

  1. bringing in someone who has the influence to make important decisions, and who has credibility with the other party or by
  2. assigning a lot of legitimate power to an individual or individuals within opposing parties so as to use the need for power and status that exists in all individuals to get major concessions from them. This is sometimes referred to as 'ingratiation' or stroking.

It is important to recognise that legitimate power can only have influence if it is recognised by other individuals because it occurs only in a social structure. Some negotiators may attempt to deny the other party some of their legitimate power by:

  1. denying them an opportunity to talk:
  2. preferring to make reciprocal offers while insisting the other party continue to make concessions:
  3. ignoring prior agreements on how to proceed: or
  4. denying that any one of the other party can have any legitimate position of significance

In such situations a negotiator could find it necessary to establish some minimal legitimate authority before proceeding, and in some cases may in fact be advised to refuse to proceed until the other party shows by his or her behaviour, that the authority is in place. Once a small, secure base of legitimate authority is established, a skillful negotiator can extend it.

[ Part I ] [ Part II ] [ Part III ]

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