How to Deal with an Obvious Power Imbalance in Conversation

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you have to make polite conversation involving a power imbalance? I bring this up because part of the Integrated Management Experience is networking. You get 1 bonus per cent for each legitimate networking event you attend in the semester outside of your IME obligations. This semester I’m getting the 2% max through participation in 2 events, a CPA bowl-a-rama and the PC leadership convention which will take place later in March. The bowling was more intimidating and it was actually because I met a future professor I’ll have there. It didn’t help that I ended up in the gutter more than rain water on a well designed street.

I didn’t expect to end up bowling with the professor I’ll be taking 2 of the hardest classes in my degree with. I hope you can appreciate why I’m more jittery socialising with my future professor than I am a possible future Premier of Alberta. Is that silly? Nope. I don’t need the approval of the Premier of Alberta become a CPA. Political leaders have many indirect impacts on your life and goals but the person who will teach you your trade has a direct impact on your life. A good impression makes it easier to ask for help and that’s a pass/fail situation in my books. If this was a potential future employer it’d be a lot easier to get the job with a good first impression. So we start chatting and the professor legitimately seems to be a great guy. Relaxed, friendly, open and honest. We chat about family, sports, hobbies and the only thing I have to be embarrassed about is my score of 33 after 9 frames. Pretty good so far! Then the power imbalance drops like a hammer when we inevitably end up chatting about the classes I’ll be taking with him.

  • The courses are hard and the marks reflect that

  • Accounting isn’t easy, if you struggle with comprehension, you’ll fail

  • You choose your effort, that effort determines how successful you are

Objectively he’s absolutely right. There’s nothing rude or untrue in what he’s saying and as a student majoring in accounting I hear it at the start of every intermediate and advanced level class. But when I’m surrounded by 30 other people I can get away with staring blankly and nodding. That’s how low the bar is for nailing it. In a casual, informal setting though there’s more pressure and you’ll feel it (especially if you already suck at bowling!) So how would you respond? You have more to lose than they do. This is the time to make a personal judgement about the person you’re talking too. I felt this professor had high expectations and pride in their field. So I made a judgement call that what they’d respond well too is an acceptance of the challenge they raised.

  • Fair point but a good mark in a hard course feels pretty good when you put the work in

  • Challenge is how people grow, I want to be ready for when I graduate

  • The difference between success and failure is often knowing when to ask for help

How you respond is who you become. I felt awkward at the time but I felt pretty good the next time we bumped into each other. First name basis and friendly teasing, I must have made a good impression. When there is a genuine power-imbalance you can’t reverse it with a clever retort. There’s a reason why nobody wants to work with people like Dr. House. The point of networking events is to make an impression by demonstrating you can navigate them with good judgement. If you have less power you make an impression by showing ambition, independent thinking and respect. If you have more power you make an impression by being honest, compassionate and receptive. Learn how to navigate power imbalances, in IME you get graded on it.

Your Friend,

Warren Mitchell