Power Laws and Power Dynamics

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power curve
Christopher Allen has his article on social networks and power laws up today, and it’s worth a read. He makes the point that the size of a group or network is only one part of the social dynamic, because not all members of a group are ‘equal’, and, particularly in larger groups, a small proportion of members tends to dominate. This is all according to the Power Law theory (Clay Shirky is most famously associated with this), which is illustrated above: Most members of such groups fall in the “long tail” to the right side of the curve; each of them has relatively little influence on the group as a whole, but collectively, because of their large number, this “tail” can be long enough to “wag the dog” (if they’re sufficiently organized and enabled and inclined to do so).

What interests me, more than the non-egalitarian nature of such groups (especially hierarchies), are the power dynamics of groups that are purportedly equal. We have been conditioned by the multiple hierarchies in most of the groups we participate in (including families, workplaces, and recreational teams), to wait for ‘leaders’ to present themselves (or be assigned) in the groups we are part of. We tend to find self-organization opportunities (or necessities) bewildering — there’s kind of a tacit “who’s in charge” question floated, a ‘holding back’ waiting for someone to direct the group.

It doesn’t take long, however, with a bit of practice in Open Space or in unorganized collaborative activities (“pick-up” sports, karaoke, dances, and some collective work-bees), we quickly re-learn the art of self-organization. Once you get used to self-organization, it’s hard to put up with ‘organized’ groups again, with their bullies, louder voices, self-designated leaders/followers and wallflowers. So you get a complex power dynamic working:

  • The people who are used to holding sway (people normally in a position of wealth or power) will naturally talk first, and start to display dominance behaviours (talking loudly, interrupting, aggressive body language, pulling rank, assigning tasks, making decisions ‘for’ the group)
  • The people who think they have something to say but who are unable or unwilling to exercise dominance behaviours to ‘compete’ with the first group will disengage, and their behaviours will show it (looking away, multitasking, crossed arms, moving towards exits, daydreaming)
  • The people who want to curry favour with the first group will start exhibiting submissive behaviours towards them (leaning forward body language, nods)
  • The people who are overwhelmed and reluctant to contribute out of fear or shyness will start exhibiting non-directed submissive behaviours (legs drawn up, self-touching, intertwined fingers) and trying to decide who to defer to; anything they are coaxed to say will be immediately discounted or ignored

Some of these signals and dynamics are quite subtle, and many of them are not even noticed by others. If you have come to prefer self-organized egalitarian groups but work for an organization where this is rarely or never authentically practiced (most hierarchies pretend to have/tolerate egalitarian groups, but this is only for effect, and such groups actually have little or no real authority), this can be so exasperating as to make you culturally incompatible with the organization — you’ll find hierarchical group activities so toxic you’ll quit, or your rancor or disengagement will get you fired.

My sense is that this cultural tension is creating a constant power disequilibrium in many organizations:

  • People who are at the top of hierarchies are finding it harder to attract and retain sufficient obedient submissives and patient sycophant climbers
  • Hierarchies with too many ambitious dominants are being crippled by more and more violent dominance competitions (leading to high burnout rates)
  • Some former egalitarians are being seduced by increasing power and wealth to behave like, and finally become, top-of-hierarchy dominants
  • Mostly-egalitarian groups are being exhausted by the need to constantly reprove/expel incorrigible dominants and ‘bring out’ incorrigible submissives

Picture a society made up of equal numbers of chimps (hierarchy, top-down organized culture) and bonobos (egalitarian, self-organized culture). Yes I know these are somewhat exaggerated sterotypes. The chimps had worked fine together when they were a monoculture, because everyone quickly learned their place in the hierarchy and decisions were made and followed accordingly. The bonobos had worked fine together when they were a monoculture, because they worked out everything by consensus without power dynamics.

But now they’re mixed together, and worse, the older members of the diverse culture are mostly chimps and the younger members are mostly bonobos. The dominant chimps are unhappy because the bonobos won’t defer and obey. The submissive chimps are unhappy because it looks like chaos — no one is clearly in control, telling them what to do. And the bonobos are unhappy because the dominant chimps are bullying and not listening, and the submissive chimps are not participating and speaking up.

In the real world, the power dynamics are at once much subtler and much more complex. There is no truly egalitarian culture, and many of us have blind spots as to our use of and acquiescence to power. Nor is there any truly hierarchical culture — we don’t always defer to people higher in the hierarchy (especially if there is no direct line of responsibility or authority), nor do we always want or expect people lower in the hierarchy to defer to us. Besides, position in the hierarchy is usually subjective and context-determined. So in fact the power dynamics and cultural tensions described in the bullets above are ever-present in almost every group or organization to which we belong.

So 7 and 50 may be ideal sizes for Work Groups and Enterprise Groups, but their success will be strongly determined by the cultural mix and power dynamics of the group members. That’s even true, the idealist in me acknowledges with a sigh, when the Group is substantially self-selected. We cannot know the personality and power culture of people until we’ve worked with them in a variety of situations. And of course, we don’t even know ourselves perfectly, nor how we can delude ourselves, or be seduced, to act in ways very different from those we claim to espouse. Some of the constant power struggle will be going on inside each of us.

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3 Responses to Power Laws and Power Dynamics

  1. Paris says:

    lol, it seems a invisible division line where I work: people over 30 are chimps, while those below 30 are bonobos.It makes me scared to become suddenly powerless and uncreative in 15 It takes so much more adaptative intelligence to be a bonobos…

  2. Steve Ediger says:

    Robert Fuller, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies and the Politics of Dignity presents a new look at power in groups.

  3. Don Dwiggins says:

    Hi, Dave,Thanks for the link to Allen’s work — looks like another potential resource. For some reason, it reminded me of Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model. (I can’t remember whether I recommended it to you earlier.) There’s a page on Gary Alexander’s Open Co-op site that gives a summary of it, and there are a few other places where it’s described, including a long paper on the application to British co-ops.(Beer himself is an interesting subject, especially his work with Salvador Allende’s brief adiministration in Chile.)

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