Power Struggle

How do you handle potentially volatile situations?

It's as old as time itself.

We've seen it throughout all generations - from antiquity, through medieval, to modern. From the reign of the Egyptian Pharaohs to the rule of the Roman Emperors. We see it in homes when children rebel against parents. We see the results of it in half of all marriages ending in divorce. We see it in the workplace between bosses and those who work for them. It’s in every area of life.

It's the reason that the United States have been rocked with protests from coast to coast over the last few weeks.

It’s the classic struggle for power and control.

While most of us are aware of the high profile incidents that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, there are a number of others that are not as popular.

Peter Liang, an NYPD rookie police officer shot and killed Akai Gurley on Nov. 20, 2014 in Brooklyn. This did not make national headlines probably because the family asked Al Sharpton to stay away.

Just 10 days after Brown was killed, a witness captured on video, the shooting death of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell by two St. Louis police officers outside a convenience store. Then, there’s the video footage of a girl being restrained in a choke-hold by a female police officer in Mesa, Arizona.

In many of these cases, those that have power on their side exert their authority by barking out commands or issuing decrees. And they expect nothing short of immediate and unquestioned compliance. I’ll call them the “powerful”. On the other side are those who challenge the authority of the powerful. They don't want to be pushed around. They refuse to comply. They're the “powerless”.

When the two collide, the powerless get the short end of the stick. Lives are lost. Families get devastated. Demonstrations and protests rock a nation.

Which makes me wonder how trivial we treat our most essential possessions. Both the powerful and the powerless treat human lives casually. Sometimes, the powerful demand compliance with whatever order creeps into their heads and threaten punishment for disobedience. The powerless on the other hand play poker with their lives. They challenge the authority of the powerful to dole out punishment.

In a few of the recent police encounters captured on video, you could hear some challenge the officers and dare them to shoot. It’s almost as if they have death wishes. That’s amazing, when you consider the fact that once a life is taken, it cannot be given back. Once destroyed, it cannot be redeemed.

While I’m not advocating blind obedience to every kind of authority, I think it’s important to take a closer look at the situation. The policeman is human. Even though he’s fully trained, you can’t vouch for his state of mind at that specific moment. Or what his experiences have been lately. Did he just have a quarrel with another officer? Or his wife? Is he having some personal issues or struggles? Does he have any prejudices or biases? Maybe. Maybe not.

But what about the experiences and biases on the other side? The perception that you’re a criminal because you’re a black male could be irritating. If not controlled, that irritation could lead to irrational behaviors. Has he been unjustly harassed by a police officer in the past? Did any of his friends or family? Did he keep his cool then, and bottled up his feelings until now? Maybe today is the day he’s chosen to crawl out of his inaction. Today, he will stand his ground.

When neither side considers all the options, and refuses to give the other side some benefit of the doubt, the consequences can be deadly. Some have ended in the most harrowing experiences we've seen recently. Lives pointlessly lost.

You can see the same dynamics at play in the workplace on a daily basis. Yes, it may not be as life-threatening as these police encounters, but it’s equally dangerous. A boss barks out an “order” and demand that things be done his way. Whether or not that furthers the cause of the business is irrelevant. For many of us, we sheepishly comply, probably because we don’t consider the stakes as being high enough for us to take a stand.

Others stand their ground, and go toe-to-toe with the boss for various reasons. Some believe there could be a better way, and they find the best means to convey this. Eventually, they may be able to convince the boss otherwise. Some who also believe in another option go a different route and challenge the boss to a shouting contest. Even though lives may not be lost here, jobs could be. Careers may be ruined. An organization could lose a valuable employee.

What about you? What will you do? Do you have the self-control to restrain yourself and check your impulses even when what you’re experiencing feels unjustified? Can you behave in such a manner that will diffuse a potentially volatile situation? Do you have the skills to influence and change opinions without resorting to violence?

Whether you’re the powerful or the powerless, the boss or the subordinate, it's good to pause. Pause to ponder the situation you’re in. Carefully consider the best way to respond. A lot may be riding on it.

Precious lives may depend on it.