The Best Way to Handle a Power Struggle

My flight from New York to Paris was delayed — maybe it would be canceled — and the passengers at the gate were frustrated. Most were sitting quietly in their frustration, periodically looking up at the screen and mumbling the things that people mumble when they feel annoyed but powerless like, “we’re never gonna get out of here!” and “can you believe this?”

Then there was this French couple, for whom mumbling was not sufficient. They were having difficulty communicating in English, which I knew, as did everyone else in the airport, because they were in a loud argument with the gate agent. They had that Do you know who I am? posture, with some I’m not leaving until I get what I want thrown in for good measure.

I sidled in closer to hear what the commotion was about. As I understood it, they were angry because they had tickets but no seat assignment and were afraid they would be booted off the flight. The gate agent, who I later found out was able to give them a seat assignment, refused to. She assured them that they would be on the flight when — and if — it left but, she said, she had to focus on getting the flight off the ground and “Right now, no one has a seat because the flight isn’t going anywhere.”

Something was lost in translation; they heard “you don’t have a seat and you’re not going anywhere.” Which, of course, made them feel even more anxious and powerless. They reacted to this powerlessness by trying to exert power. By insisting, even louder, that they did, in fact, have a seat, just not a seat assignment, which is what they were asking for. And she had better give them that! To which she responded, and I’m quoting her: “No!”

It would be easy to give the gate agent advice on how to handle the situation more effectively. But it’s more interesting to figure out what the French couple should do. Because if you set aside who’s right in this situation and if you set aside the language barrier, what you have left is a situation we’re all in all the time: a power struggle. And the gate agent clearly had the power — she could choose to give the French couple a seat assignment or not.

Sometimes this struggle is departmental: Sales wants something from Marketing but Marketing isn’t giving it to them so Sales yells louder, maybe with a threat or two for effect. Other times, the power battle is more personal: one team member wants something from another team member and tries to use her power to get it. Sometimes, even, it works.

But more often than not, it fails. Grabbing power, especially when you don’t have it, is unpredictable, feels bad to both parties, and is bullying. The collateral damage to the relationship is almost always high. There’s got to be a better way to get what you want when you’re powerless in a situation.

Thankfully, there is, and discovering it won me a free upgrade to first class: let go of the illusion that you have any power at all. It’s getting in the way.

Instead of trying to use power you don’t have, appeal to the generosity of the person who actually has the power. People, when asked and respected, will often willingly do the exact thing they’re refusing to do when they feel like you’re pushing them.

As soon as I heard the gate agent say “No!” I stepped in. Literally. I stepped between the French couple and the agent and interrupted their conversation. I had a secret weapon: I speak French.

I asked the gate agent to give me a moment and spoke to the couple in French, explaining what the agent was saying. Then, I turned to the gate agent and explained what the couple thought she was saying.

Once everyone had calmed down, the French couple apologized and let the gate agent know that they recognized how hard the delayed flight must be on her. They said they knew she didn’t have to give them a seat assignment but explained how anxious they felt and asked whether, in this particular situation, even though she was clearly so busy trying to get the flight off the ground, she might be willing to give them seat assignments to help them. After a short conversation, she gave them new boarding passes with seat assignments.

Sometimes, it really does help to appeal to a powerful person’s generosity.

Here’s what’s interesting: in the business world, it often feels like everyone else is always the powerful person. At any moment, customers can take their business elsewhere, employees can change jobs, and colleagues can pursue their own, personal agendas.

No matter what our positional power, we’re better off appealing to people’s generosity. Even if we’re paying them, it’s useful to see those around us as volunteers. Which means issuing more requests than orders, and creating relationships built on trust and respect rather than hierarchy and politics.

If you notice other people in a power struggle, consider stepping in the middle — not to choose sides, but to bridge the gap. Sometimes people need a momentary disruption in their battle to see each other as people and reach into their own deep well of generosity. And usually, they’re too deeply enmeshed in their argument to see beyond their own stance. The interruption by a third party can help both sides get beyond themselves.

When the gate agent thanked me for intervening, I figured I’d give it a try too. I told her I was happy to help, and, followed with, “I know you have so many other people you’re trying to satisfy. And I don’t even know if it’s possible – it’s probably against the rules – but if there is some way you had the ability to upgrade me, some chance of an extra seat in first class, I would be so appreciative. It would make the flight an awesome treat. If there were any way…”

Well, as it turned out, because of the plane equipment problems, the airline had to put us on a different plane, one with larger first class cabin. When we did, she printed me out a new boarding pass, with a new seat assignment. One in first class.