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4 Tips to Manage Relationships with Unequal Power

How unequal power impacts trust and cooperation.

Key points

  • Actual power differences can exist in a relationship, even when both people feel powerful.
  • That relative power difference can make both people feel conflicted, distrustful, and uncooperative.
  • Fortunately, equalizing power and focusing on common interests can help to restore trust and cooperation.

Trust is essential for well-functioning relationships, groups, and societies. It motivates individuals to be vulnerable and cooperate with each other, rather than relying on coercion and control. Therefore, within the social science literature, trust has been studied a lot.

Until recently, however, the connection between relative power and trust in interpersonal interactions had not been thoroughly studied. Previous studies generally only looked at the impact of feelings and perceptions of power on trust. In modern culture, however, actual equity and equality within relationships are a big concern on all levels (personal, organizational, and societal). Thus, recent research has addressed this topic—and has a lot to teach us about power, trust, and cooperation.

Research on Power and Trust

A series of experiments, evaluating various aspects of power dynamics and trust, were published in March 2023 by du Plessis, Nguyen, Foulk, and Schaerer. The team conducted eight main studies, primarily using interpersonal trust games, which varied the level of power each participant had to control different outcomes. Within those equal or unequal power arrangements, participants then had to trust each other to cooperate and secure a win for them both (rather than defect for selfish gain).

In the first three experiments, the team evaluated the relationship between relative power and trust in simple interactions. Participants were asked to interact with a partner, assigned to different supervisory, subordinate, or equal roles. Then, their level of trust in that partner was measured.

Results showed that participants in less powerful roles (i.e., subordinates) were significantly less trusting of more powerful partners (i.e., supervisors) than participants in equal power roles. More powerful supervisors were also less trusting of subordinates than participants in equal power roles. Thus, distrust between the powerful and the powerless went both ways.

Another experiment explored whether trust impacted cooperation directly. Participants had to choose whether to cooperate or defect for different monetary payouts. Consistent with the findings above, participants equal in power were the most cooperative with each other (83.97 percent). Low-power participants cooperated a bit less (69.47 percent), while high-power participants cooperated the least (58.14 percent). Therefore, there appeared to be a connection between real power differences, feelings of trust, and actual cooperative behaviors.

To explore these dynamics further, du Plessis, Nguyen, Foulk, and Schaerer (2023) conducted two more studies looking at conflicts of interest as a mediator. They hypothesized that a misalignment of goals and objectives might become more apparent in unequal power situations since these situations can feel more competitive. Results supported that hypothesis. When power was unequal, participants felt there was a greater conflict of interest with their partner. Also, when conflicts of interest were highlighted, trust was further diminished.

Two final studies evaluated these dynamics further. The first tested differences between actual power and perceptions of power. Results of that study showed that, even when both participants felt powerful, actual differences in power and control still had an impact on trust and cooperation. The second study looked at the impact of external competition on trust and cooperation. In that case, an outside threat influenced participants to cooperate and trust each other more—even when there was still a mismatch in power between them.

Dealing with Unequal Power

From the above, it is clear that power imbalances can cause problems in relationships. Nevertheless, the results point to some potential solutions, too. Below are four steps to consider when you find yourself in such a situation:

1) Be honest with yourself and others. In general, people are sensitive to fairness in relationships. Both those who are under-benefitted and over-benefitted in inequitable relationships are often uncomfortable with the situation. As noted above, they also tend to distrust each other. Thus, even when people try to ignore real power differences, the discomfort and distrust still seem to impact their relationships. Frankly, we live in an unequal world that appears to make us all a bit uncomfortable. Given that, it might be beneficial to start dealing with such situations by first admitting they are real.

2) Look at relative power from multiple angles. The studies above focused on a classical definition of power—control over various resources (reward power and coercive power). Nevertheless, there are other types and bases of power. Individuals can be powerful because of laws or social norms (legitimate power), or through their social skills and relationships (referent power). They might possess great skills and abilities (expert power), or know important things (informational power). Therefore, a partner low in power in one type of situation may be high in power in another. Thus, describing a situation from one perspective only can be misleading and can cause individuals to overlook where they might have bases of power to equalize their own relationships.

3) Look for win-win solutions. People tend to care about the outcomes of a relationship, too. Thus, even when power cannot be fully equalized, people can still trust and cooperate with each other when they are working toward a mutually beneficial outcome. Therefore, it is important to highlight areas of cooperation as a foundation for trust in all relationships. Practically, this means focusing on shared goals and creating mutually satisfying interactions, where everyone's needs are addressed.

4) Remain both vigilant and open. Unfortunately, some people do seek power to control others. Sometimes the powerless are manipulated to fight, mistrust, and compete with each other. As the research above notes, a sense of unity within an unequal power relationship can be created by just the notion of conflict with another group as well. Nevertheless, that other group is not always the enemy (or even powerful), and the powerful people we may want to trust are not always friends. Therefore, it is important to strike a balance between vigilance against oppression and openness to cooperation—noting whether there is really a conflict of interest (or a common interest) in each relationship.

© 2023 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


du Plessis, C., Nguyen, M. H. B., Foulk, T. A., & Schaerer, M. (2023). Relative power and interpersonal trust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 124(3), 567–592.

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