When people remain in low-power positions for extended periods of time, they are susceptible to certain conflict traps.
Peter Coleman and Robert Ferguson describe these traps in their book Make Conflict Work.
The Keep-your-head-down Trap
People with less power tend to have lower aspirations and expectations and think and plan in shorter time spans. This happens, for example, when people at work ask for material benefit without considering education benefits, participation in important projects, or a chance to make the rank of supervisor. When we feel in a position of low power we tend to keep our goal “realistic” thus reducing our ambition and achievement in a long term view.
The Burden-of-low-expectations trap
In one study, researchers assigned participants to manager and clerks roles in an organizational simulation and found that clerks rated managers as more competent than fellow clerks, even though they knew the roles were randomly assigned. Furthermore, low expectations from superiors tend to inflict strong psychological constraints on those in low power further limiting their aspirations, expectations and behavior in conflict and contributing to the depth of their negativity reservoirs at work.
The powerless-corrupts trap
Powerlessness can produce a strong sense of latent resentment and rage, impairing the capacity to be constructive at work. This can result in serious health problems, heightened rigidity, violent acting out, or a strong drive to sabotage and undermine those in authority. A sense of powerlessness leads easily to negativity, pessimism and frustration.
The divide-and-conquer trap
People in low power often find it easier to vent their frustration by targeting members of other low-power groups, and they therefore are more easily manipulated into being divided by those in power. This was a classic strategy employed by many colonial powers attempting to disempower the indigenous ethnic groups.
The equality-illusion trap
Some low-power workers choose to deny or ignore differences in authority and status between themselves and superiors. Although this can alleviate some psychological stressors of having low rank, sometimes the reality of the top-down chain of command comes crashing in. People who fall in this trap might make proposals to their bosses thinking they would just join the debate. They tend to perceive them as colleagues with equal power who would eventually influence each other to find a solution. However, they have the power to take a completely different decision or even to shut down the conversation.
The victim-status trap
People in low power can get more comfortable with the attention and higher mora status bestowed on them from peers and outside parties for being disadvantaged. This sense of victim status can prevent from building win-win solutions, and leads to a constant state of self commiseration.
Adapted from Peter Coleman and Robert Ferguson, “Make Conflict Work”, Mariner books