Archive | March 2012

The Prison Walls For The Top Group

(This is the third piece in this series of intergroup dynamics.)

Have you ever contemplated what’s like to be in a dramatically different working condition? living situation? position of power (or lack of)?  To serve in a soup kitchen once or twice a year does not even begin to offer a sense of being homeless.  To fast once in a blue moon does not bring one an iota closer to the edge of perpetual hunger.  Imagine possessing enormous power?  What do you do with it?

The experiential learning society, Montville, that Kenwyn Smith portrays in his book, Groups in Conflict, offered the 22 women and men a chance to immerse themselves in a power status that was not their natural environment.  The participants ranged widely in their professional backgrounds (from corporate director to student), age (early twenties to sixty), religious beliefs, organizational affiliations (from university to military), etc.  Their economic backgrounds, though, were more similar, middle to upper middle class.  The setting was a in a tiny town in which three separate buildings were provided as living quarters, corresponding to the “elite/top,” “in/middle,” and “out/lower” group status, along with a common area in the form of a dining hall in the village inn.

Every learning setting in such simulations has its own design, with certain variations of structural features to correspond to the design theme.  However, the main purpose is always to construct and operate a society/system in which three tiers of power are to be maintained.  Participants knew in advance that they were going to be randomly assigned to one of these groups, not unlike the “luck” of birth.  It was essential that the participants be informed that they were likely to experience great discomfort, both physical and emotional.  They were advised to withdraw from participation if they were in a truly “stressful” life situation.  Generally, and in Montville specifically, the top group members were the first to arrive on site where the four staff members would process their registration and give them a certain amount of information and instruction.  The simulation began with the registration, including handing over all luggage, keys, wallets, etc.  Staff members also participated in the simulation, associated with the Top group.  As the Top began their “plan” for this new society, middle group members began to arrive, knowing that they were the middle but unsure who amongst the top might have belonged to the middle group.  The last members to arrive were the lower and they “knew their place.”

The simulation lasted two full days – inevitably feeling like two weeks to all participants – followed immediately by a third day for debriefing.

I wish I could provide even a rough sketch of what and how the Montville simulation played out.  The sequences of events, actions, perceptions, interactions, reactions, debates, guesswork, suspicions, all need to be laid out for readers to grasp why each uttered sentence can be hardened into the next set of actions.  Smith provides a meticulous anthropological account, which comprises half of the book.  However, that’s not possible in my space here.  So, once again, I urge you to get a copy of this book for yourself.  Here, I will go straight to the debriefing of each group’s take on the Montville system.  Please trust me: I have seen similar simulations enough times to know that the patterns of the interactions and outcomes are fairly robust.  I also have worked in enough organizations to know that the analysis holds true.  Today I focus on the Top group.


When the Top group didn’t like the reflections given by the other groups, they would attribute the response as independent action on the others.  Such as, when the lower group walked away from the top’s command to redo a proposal, without much resistance, the top thought the lower group was going to do exactly what they were told.  In lower’s reality, they ignored the proposal and went on to their own recreation activities.  Further, when the Top didn’t like the feedback, they would force the other groups to provide only the information they wanted to hear/liked.  The middle group often played into this dynamic, and just as often provided only what the Top wanted, so that they could escape from yet another scolding or berating from the Top.  Finally, the Top would simply reject all opinions as irrelevant, and relied on themselves as the only viable audience.  During the final stretch of the simulation, the Top felt threatened by the lower’s psychological warfare:  the lower occupied the top’s dinner places and ate the better quality food (meant for the top); took/stole the Top’s belongings; lingered around outside the Top’s domicile; deflated tires of one of the two cars (only the Top got to keep two vehicles).  Instead of examining the sequence of events and their own contribution to the state of affairs, the Top group simply took the community money – they were supposed to be the guardian – and drove into the neighboring village for some fancy dinners.

The social comparison process for the Top group was to extract only the information that would correspond to what the Top wanted to perceive.

Decision-making, especially strategic decision-making, is all about information and power play.  In just about all organizations, the top level of management is in charge of making strategic decisions, an onerous task.  In order to make well-informed decisions, ideally, the top level needs to be knowledgeable about both internal and external environments.  In their collective mind, much of this information isn’t readily available to other groups.  To lessen their own burden, the top level has to delegate something to others to carry out.  Typically, the top would keep the decision-making responsibility, and leave the implementation aspect to others, usually the middles.  This looks reasonable enough, till we see how it played out at Montville.

When the Top delegated to the middle in Montville, it was generally done without giving the middle much authority with which to implement decisions.  As a result, the middle would come back with less-than-satisfactory outcomes, for which they received a verbal rebuke.  After a few rounds, the middle group learned to protect itself from the Top by withholding some information.  This information-filtration eventually lead to a powerful double bind.  The Top group, now deprived of information, nevertheless thought they were all-knowledgeable, and saw the other groups’ “incompetence” as the justification for further withholding authority from them.  This then almost guaranteed the incompetence of the less powerful and all the more justified (hardened) the berating the less powerful would receive.

Knowledge is power, as is information.  When the less powerful groups began to offer only partial information – the part that would protect the less powerful but please/appease the more powerful – from which the top made their strategic decisions, we can see where this would eventually lead to.  After a few rounds of reduced information going upward, say, from 60% to 30% and so forth, pretty soon, the Top would eventually only get trivial information with which to make important decisions.

Again, I urge you to think of your own work place, or social concerns for examples.

We are all familiar with the conundrum of “master and slave;” whoever has the most information is in real control.  Furthermore, what information to give and how it is received lie in the eyes of the beholder. How often do we feel a sense of frustration when the information we get back isn’t what we really want?  And have we believed that the other end must not “listen well” or be “lazy” in carrying out our request?   Over time, many organizations develop the ultimate symbol of power by creating “classified information,” or other forms of “need to know.”  Yet, often, from the declassified government information, we are mystified as to why these were secrets in the first place.  Secrecy is a powerful tool to create and sustain the subordinates’ need of dependency.

Here is another puzzle:  The actual act of collecting information is usually carried out by less powerful groups.  How would they know what relevant information to search for and collect if they don’t have access to the whole picture?  Conversely, given that the top level continuously receives only partial information, how would they construct a realistically whole picture from which to define the next batch of relevant information they need?

Related, this need of the top group to use “privileged” information that’s denied to others is a manifestation of ethnocentrism.  Technically, ethnocentrism means that the set of standards, parameters, or rationales on which a group defines itself is different from the set(s) used for gauging other groups.  The middle group, being closer to the Top group in interactions, was usually judged and treated more harshly than the lower group, which was generally regarded as the Top’s “possession” to do the Top’s bidding.  When groups interact, most exchanges are not concrete, clear, or totally honest.  Groups don’t deal with ambiguities well, so they often fill in the gaps with their own interpretations that would meet their own standards or needs.  Over time, the Top group’s “reality” became dramatically different from the other groups whose own realities were just as skewed.

The Top group in Montville saw themselves as both the designer and definer of their little society; therefore, all the others had to do was carry out their orders and all would be well.  This is a mechanistic view of the “parts” that make up the whole.  In treating the less powerful groups as “possessions,” the Top could afford to not take the less powerful groups’ emotions into account; their aberrant behaviors or emotional outbursts would be irrelevant in the Top’s decisions of operating this little society.  In our “reality,” similarly, the corporate bosses view the workers as part of the equation on balance sheet; the military policy makers see soldiers as part of the national arsenal, etc.

In the simulation, initially, the top group saw gaining power as the means to an end, but eventually, it was the end.  “And the means to that end became making others powerless – a logical fallacy.”  This is the fallacy of either-or framework.  The top’s dynamic conservatism is summed up by Smith in this manner:

[This] posture of being the ‘creator’ of reality lead not only to the Elite’s being out of touch with other realities around them.  It also laid the foundation for their particular form of dynamic conservatism, hence making them ultimately reactive prisoners of the realities they helped to create.

Have a productive week.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Conceptual Foundation For Understanding Power Differentials: Social comparison and dynamic conservatism – Part II

(My apology for getting the date wrong; on 3/11, I was schussing down!)

Action, interaction, reaction, and inaction are all important factors to weigh in understanding the dynamics of interactions among individuals and groups.  Characters and qualities of personality acquire meanings through all those (___)actions.

it’s not foggy nor overcast; the haze was caused by the WIND/DUST!

When I first moved to this part of the world, I was more or less an unknown to others.  Gradually, friends and colleagues built a store of descriptors of me, some probably are always true; others are couched in certain contexts, and a few I probably would never know about.  In our social being, we often rely on others as our looking glass for cues about our behavior.  This is true for groups as well; they need others to help define group identity and boundary; without boundary, there wouldn’t be identity.  However, there is a paradox of boundary: It provides comfort but also constraints.  The constraining force is what Kenwyn Smith refers to as the “psychological prison.”

The “prison” metaphor maybe a bit harsh, but the image fits.  The walls separating inmates from non-prisoners are not viewed equally; the inmates feel being closed-in but the outsiders have the luxury of not (always) feeling closed-in.  So, when a group adopts certain ideas, principles, postures, etc, they are drawing the boundary, essentially by erecting walls, and are then compelled to, like, be bounded by them.  How this comes about is through social comparison process in which the group uses (and needs) other groups as a looking glass to examine and define itself.  And when there are several groups jostling with and against each other, the system in which these groups reside absorbs all these dynamic powers and produces its own meta-power that contributes to the encasement, the dynamic conservatism.

horizontal willow branches

Using “looking glass” as a metaphor is useful for understanding intergroup dynamics in several aspects.  Just as we use a mirror, purpose and distance are important factors.  If I want to see whether there is foreign object in my eye, I move close to the mirror; when I want to see how I look with the ensemble of clothes I threw on, I step back, and if I am in a hurry but want to make sure that I look decent, I just take a quick look.  But it’s much more complicated for groups.  Really.

I invite you to think of your own experiences at work, at home, and in society as you read along.

If group A gets too close to group B and sees in B reflections of the internal conflicts, fragmentation, struggles, or vulnerability that they experience themselves in group A, it’d be uncomfortable at the very least.  Most likely, group A wants to reject these images, hide from their own “reality,” and distance itself from the other group.  But if group A gets too far from group B, what it receives is likely to be trivial or superficial images which offer little to inform group A’s identity.

On Distance  In one of the experiential learning settings, the “bottom” group went to the “top/elite” group for more clarification for some proposal, but was told to go away and come back with a new proposal.  The bottom group did go away but indulged itself in recreational activities instead of working on the “proposal.”  The distance between these two groups was so great that the top felt that “see, we are the powerful ones; we are in control; we sent them away to carry out our command.”  So the top group basked in the sunshine of their own power while ignorant of its consequences, and the bottom group went away maintaining the integrity of their own power by expressing indifference and disdain.

On Reasons   One example:  What the “bottom” group feared most, in their relatively powerless position in the system, was their own disunity.  Instead of looking at their own disagreements and schisms – which is always uncomfortable – they much preferred to look at groups with whom they had natural animosity.   It is when the group is alone that its internal disagreements are most glaring.  So, in the face of conflicts with external groups, the bottom group experienced its greatest unity. Indeed, the bottom group, in their perpetual need to gain more power, would at times orchestrate conflicts with others, just so they could experience that ephemeral feeling of power brought on by unity.

stronger wind yet

To explore further the complexity of intergroup dynamics in a system, Smith adds another layer to the “looking glass/mirror” metaphor, the “stage performance” where subtle interactions between performing group and audience group help shed more light.

1.  As I mentioned before, group members want both to be part of the group and apart from the group.  Such ambivalence and tension are natural but are also confusing and frightening, and as a result, consume much of the group energy.  Groups, too, have public and private personae, and by definition, they don’t really want the private “stuff” revealed too much, if at all.  Pretty soon, they move toward covering up their own private struggles with certain public images that win back from the audience group(s) what they want to see and hear.  In other words, they trade information for confirmation.

2.  So, when the group doesn’t like what the audience reflects back, the group can either change the audience or change their act.  In the above-mentioned experiential learning setting, the middle group told the top group that they couldn’t really implement the top’s decision about the bottom group.  The top group told the middle group that this was the middle’s incompetence in the implementation, and not the top’s inability to make an informed decision.  “The upper group used the power to reject any feedback about their own competence or incompetence as a group and chose to only listen to the responses of the audience group that confirmed their own desires to be seen as powerful and in control.”  Sound familiar?  This week’s news of a Goldman-Sachs employee’s public resignation and the top’s response is a perfect example.

3.  At times, a group performs without an external audience group and serves as its own audience group.  As Smith says, “the potential for self-delusion is very high.”  In the same learning setting, the top group devised a plan for the bottom to work on, without any input from either the bottom or the middle groups who were supposed to implement the plan.  When the middle went along – because they were exhausted by now – the top thought their idea was good.  When the bottom refused to go along, and the middle reported back to the top that the idea had failed, we saw the response.

4.  Performing for imaginary audience creates yet another kind of dynamics.

5.  Or, performing the “sham.”  When a group pre-orchestrates its public image, the members all know it’s a sham and they can’t hide this from each other, but they have to from the public.  This eventually erodes the group’s unity and internal conflicts are the inevitable outcomes.

6.   And the group assumes other groups are also performing their versions of sham.

So, before you know it, distrust runs deep and no one seems to be able to unravel all the hardening layers of encasement.

just to drive home the point: it’s windy!

When one group is performing, the audience group wants to get closer to peak behind the façade, and vice versa.  At the same time the performing group wants to keep a safe distance from the audience group to protect itself, and vice versa. Compounding it all is the undisputable reality that the actions, inaction, reactions, and interactions among groups happen constantly and often simultaneously.  The need to be both distant and close at the same time thus creates intense struggles and discomfort for groups, which in turn evoke groups’ need of power to control the distance.

Since groups rarely, if ever, have the same amount of power in a system, the more powerful one will always have more influence on both the distance and the ground rules.  Guess what?  The less powerful group will always be defensive and resistant to the more powerful’s demands and rules and will try to change them whenever and however they can.  This then brings about the powerful’s defenses and resistance.  And off we go.

So, instead of spending energy to get ahead of others (all groups seem to want more power, whether I like it or not), most groups tend to use the energy to preserve their current position, the status quo, to keep things from getting worse.  While the less powerful groups may want to gain more power, their immediate concern is to not lose any more.  For all intent and purpose, all the groups focus their effort in opposing changes which would shift the power dynamics.  Better to deal with the devil you know?  When faced with “real changes,” (In earlier post, I lay out some different types of changes) groups are riddled with fears and/or suspicion, which provoke their defense and resistance mechanisms.  This whole process of bringing down standards and hardening values is the essence of dynamic conservatism.

something to counter the mess brought by the wind

In the following posts, I will try to shed some spotlight on one group at a time, in this experiential learning setting, in which Smith played the role of an anthropologist.  And, anticipating the conclusions in his book, I will demonstrate that intelligent people in “real” life do behave in irrational, bizarre, or unreasonable ways, while all the time thinking that they are being perfectly sensible.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Conceptual Foundation For Understanding Power Differentials: Competing multiple realities get us trapped – Part I

How do you tell the difference between GM and Ford, as organizations?  There may not be that many differences, but somehow we know.  So, how do you tell the difference between different groups?  Implied in my question is the answer that groups have identity too, just like organizations and individuals.  Hence the cautionary principle for describing individuals applies also to groups:  We should take care not to describe groups in static terms, as if their assigned characters were part of their permanent being.  What do I mean?  Essentially, avoid using blanket labels.  For example, I certainly have acted inconsiderately in my life, but no one who knows me would describe me as inconsiderate.  Sometimes, I may be “passionate” about something, but I can’t be passionate all the time; that’d be exhausting.  The point is:  A significant portion of who we are is activated through interactions.  It’s all about relationships.  If we are going to try to understand group dynamics, we need to first recognize that it’s a fluid force created by actions and interactions.  This is not to say that the characteristics we use to describe groups are untrue, but we should use them with care.

something goofy

I subscribe to the notion of “socially constructed reality” where “reality” is created by our comparing meanings in the perceptions of the same social phenomenon.   I also take the point of multiple realities.  For example, to a child asking mom about a sidewalk juggling act, “what is that man doing?” the answer could be

“He’s juggling.”

“He’s having fun.”

“He’s performing.”

“He’s earning a living.”

“He’s concentrating.”

“He’s entertaining; he’s making people smile.” And so on.

Which version is real is beyond debate.  All versions are real, depending on where you are, how you see things, and what occupies your mind at the moment.

An employee coming in late to the office can have multiple possible reasons.  If it were caused by an accident, this might offer you a glimpse of how this employee handles stress (also depending on the severity of the accident), but if you also knew how this employee started the day, your understanding of his “lateness” would be deepened.

Every Reality is based on a unique position; two steps east or west and the whole picture will change.”  Durrell (1961)

If “reality” between two individuals can be shifting, imagine when two groups of several people interact with each other.  If one group responds to the other group in “highly suspicious and over-sensitive” manner, we may infer and characterize that group to be paranoid.  However, if we take two steps back and watch their interaction over time, we’d take note that the group that seems to be suspicious all the time (hypothetically) occupies a powerless position, therefore their “over-sensitivity” is a byproduct of the relationship; they would act rather differently with another group of an equally powerless position, or would assume a different aura when interacting with another group only slightly more powerful.

Socially constructed reality and multiple realities do not preclude rationality, but add more to it.  As we don’t live our everyday life based on only scientific facts and statistics, we need “systems of thinking, feeling, intuiting, and knowing that can compensate for the severe limitations of rationality.”

Multiple realties don’t necessarily constitute conflicts or problems till each side insists on themselves being right, and the other wrong.  And then they tend to dig into their positions/realities.  A third group may see both sides partially right and partially wrong.  So now, not only do we have multiple realties, they often contradict each other.  Contradictions, too, do not necessarily have to be problematic till we make them so.  In the Eastern philosophy, contradiction is crucial in the understanding of the totality.  It’s about relationships, and it’s about system.

The insistence on “we are in the right” is what Smith terms “psychological prison,” which also has its built-in paradox.  “It often happens that the very forces that provide the encasement – the prison walls – also provide the structures that make us feel secure.”  So the grass is greener on the other side of the fence…till the fence is torn down, and we feel exposed and terrified, and find our digestive system incapable of handling the new grass.  We want to go back to the “good old days” where we might have been bored or stressed but we felt secure.

something pretty

Carl Jung captures the paradoxical nature of imprisonment and exposure well in his depiction of light and shadow:

It was night in some unknown place, and I was making a slow and painful headway against a mighty wind.  I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment.  Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me.  But at the same moment I was conscious, in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going regardless of all dangers.” 

The bearer of the light creates the shadow that haunts him yet he has to keep the light alive.  If the light goes out, it would not eliminate the shadow, in the bearer’s mind, rather the shadow will be fused with the darkness that would engulf the bearer.  If only the bearer could step outside this conundrum!  Smith puts it best: “The potency of the structural encasement is that the solution creates the problem that demands the solution – the bearer fears the dark, so he lights a candle, which creates a shadow which provides for the bearer the justification for fearing the dark and needing a light.

What are embedded in these contradictions, or paradoxes, are three key elements:  thesis, the anti-thesis, and the binding force of these two.  The thesis defines what it is; the anti-thesis counters it or destroys it by stating what it is not, and the binding one that helps define the whole (where all three reside), by mediating between the other two.  Assign people to these three elements, and we have (1) the group with the power to define what(ever) it is, (2) the group that has no control over what it is, but can gain power by destroying what it is, and finally, (3) the group with mediating power to keep the opposing groups together by diffusing their tension and conflict.  Oh, the mediating/middle group has its own set of paradoxes to deal with; you’ll see.

If the opposing two groups were not connected, there would be no need for the third group.  So, in essence, you will always detect three types/groups of power sources in any system, and it is the mediating group that keeps the contradiction (between the other two), in the contradictory state.

That’s enough for today.  One more entry or two yet on conceptual work before we use stories to elucidate how each group functions vis a vis the others.  But it’ll be two weeks before I get to it.  Next week is the annual family skiing trip…swoosh!  Be back on 3/11.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead

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