Tag Archive | power differentials among groups

The Great Seducer: Thy name is “power!”

First, a few more words about Facebook.  While I still don’t get it as a “product,” it has served as a catalyst in many arenas.  It can serve noble purposes, but it can also spread disinformation; obviously, it depends on the users.  My friend just posted a heart-breaking story about a young woman’s race against time, a couple of months to find a matching bone marrow donor, so my friend is spreading the word through her vast network.  Or, in Wael Ghonim’s new book, Revolution 2.0, he recounts how he used Facebook to help ignite the Arab Spring in Egypt.  Even though this Google marketing executive tried to disguise his identity, he eventually was caught and suffered for two weeks in captivity (starved, blindfolded, sleep deprived, solitary confinement, and on and on…) in the final chaotic days of Mubarak’s regime.

My point is that whatever uses Facebook offers, based on 800+ million users the financial wealth it can accrue is likely to be concentrated in only a few people, which is a bit disturbing, given how vast its influence is across the globe relative to other generic global products.

Now to today’s topic.

Power, in many ways synonymous with control, be it at personal level or at group level, offers a vast domain for management research and figures prominently in the literature.  Some of the most valuable experience I’ve gained, during graduate school and post-graduate work, is learning about power dynamics at group level, through reading, participation, observing, and teaching.  Purely fascinating.  And I largely learned it from Kenwyn Smith, through his teaching and through opportunities to work with him.  For the next few entries, I will be discussing the issues of power at group levels, in particular, groups occupying top, middle, and bottom levels of the power structure.  These intricate dynamics reside not just in organizations but everywhere, in units as basic as the family and as large as society and beyond.  Much of the material comes from Smith’s book, “Groups In Conflict:  Prisons in disguise;” which has served me well, and I still go back to it again and again.

The issues and the dynamics are complicated and convoluted; I feel that I can only do them justice by peeling back a layer at a time.  I hope my writing will convey the complexity and keep you intrigued for the next few weeks.

Before I get into groups, let me use a couple of exchanges to highlight how our judgment (and yes, we do it all the time, and often unconsciously) impacts our behavior.

A senior-rank male tells a lower-rank female employee in a conference setting, “Andrea, bring me some coffee.”  Everyone in the room will have a reaction, however private, and that reaction – which is likely to be a judgment – will dictate how this person will interact with the senior-rank male the next time they meet.  Certainly, it predisposes each observer to look for signs in which to validate that initial judgment.  Multiply this by ten-fold — assuming there are more than a dozen participants in the conference room — and we’ll have a sticky interaction pattern down the road.

One of Kenwyn Smith’s examples really struck me and stayed with me vividly till this day.  In his observer-researcher role – studying a small school district —  he found a high school principal’s handling of a teacher’s request to be exactly the same as how the principal was treated by his superintendent.  When Smith presented the comparison to Principal Lewis (not his real name), Lewis refused the comparison.  Even after Smith provided a confirming detailed side-by-side analysis, Lewis’ response was, “but it’s different!”  How so?  Lewis’ words were “I have my reason.”  And you guessed it, Smith pointed out that that was exactly the same reason the superintendent gave him for treating Lewis in the same manner.  To which Lewis still insisted “but it’s different!”  Pressed further, and upon more reflection, Lewis said, “but mine were reasons; the superintendent’s were merely rationalizations!”

The first example illustrates how we construct our framework to see the world around us.  The second points out how we use one framework for our own behavior and use a different one on others.  And we often do not realize it, and in inter-group exchanges we can’t help ourselves.  You say, “no way, I am an intelligent human being, I know better.” But this isn’t about intelligence, it’s about group dynamics, in which we get constricted or even trapped without our knowing the impact.

Why inter-group? When it’s only two individuals?  Because in the workplace, we usually observe and speak from our own position – our office, our role, which carries expectations, responsibilities, and power (or the lack of it), based on groupings of similarly-ranked people.  For more detailed stories of how these groups’ interactions, via representing individuals, get played out and intertwined, I highly urge you to find access to Smith’s book.  In his book two examples were given, one in a simulated society and the other (where the above scene took place) played out in real time in a small New England school district.

When I was in graduate school, I shied away from taking the simulated experiential learning lab because I was afraid to mess up my fragile confidence in the pursuit of my degree.  Well, Kenwyn probably had deeper insight than the excuses I had.  Whatever; by the time I thought I was ready, he had concluded the last lab. But I certainly had heard enough stories, had the privilege to observe some simulated groups, and even conducted mini simulations in some of my classes to take these lessons to heart.  The participants ranged from undergraduate students to upper managers who came for executive programs.  Believe me:  These people all got into the simulation with such force, conviction, commitment and power, that no facilitator without experience and education of such matters can do the work without emotionally harming someone (including the facilitator himself!).

I will tell a little story here, to conclude this entry and to anticipate the greater journey into this power entanglement.

The theme of the simulation lab for the graduate students of my year was “the homeless.”  On the eve before they were to go off campus to the location for the 4-day experiential learning, and after they received their instructions (one of which was to surrender all their cash except for $1 when they register at the site the next morning), they went on an eating binge, as if they could store the food in a bank.  It was a manifestation “psychological hunger.”  Next morning, walking from campus to the train station to depart for the learning site, a walk of about eight blocks, these people were famished!!  They started rummaging through some garbage cans for edibles!!!  All this before the simulation even began.  (Could this be why didn’t I want to participate?!)

Finally, here is a lengthy quote from Smith about some interaction between the top and middle groups:

“ [The top] told the middles not to come back and complain about the incompetence of the top’s decisions but rather to acknowledge their inability as middles to do their job as implementers.  The upper group used their 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 groups that confirmed their own desires to be seen as powerful and in control.”   Do you too find this resonating?

I leave this point for contemplation:  There are forces in the system over which we have little control, but which have a strong grip on us.

In the next entry, I will delineate some conceptual foundations.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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