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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