Power to the Powerful

Are We Letting Our Investments In People Evaporate Due to Arbitrary Reinforcing Cycles?

How is it that those with power seem to gain even more of it over time? And why do the disadvantaged seem to lose what little power they have, becoming increasingly reliant on those in positions of influence? If these dynamics are based on either divine or natural law, as some might suppose, then nothing can be done to change them—which is convenient if you’re one of the powerful. But if you believe this pattern of behavior can be changed, then you need to understand what drives it. And the answer is simple: structure.

A system’s structure—its parts and how they interact—determines how the system as a whole behaves. If you want to know why you can’t take a sports car off-road, then look at its parts and how they work together. A sports car’s tires and suspension are designed for taking tight turns and fast acceleration, not to power through mud and over rocks and other obstacles. Structure is easiest to see in physical objects like vehicles, but it is equally true of social systems.

A given structure produces similar behavior, regardless of the specific system in which it is found. And when the same patterns of parts and interrelationships show up in a wide variety of systems, they are called archetypes. 

A relatively small number of archetypes can be used to explain an astonishingly wide range of system behaviors. The classic Success to the Successful archetype describes the structure that leads to the accumulation of opportunity and power for some and its decline for others.

In two decades of teaching systems thinking, I have described this archetype in many workshops. Here is one of my favorite narratives:

Two new consultants, Chris and Pat, have identical potential and start work on the same day. Projects vary in length and start time, and at the moment, only Acme Financial is able to take on a new employee. The staffing manager flips a coin to determine who gets the plum assignment and who will review and organize recent project files. The loser of the toss will get the next assignment, which will probably be in three or four weeks. Chris wins the toss and joins the team at Acme Financial that afternoon. Pat starts reviewing project files, as planned.

Three weeks later, a new project is being staffed. It’s a high-profile project with an important client—one that will be a great development opportunity for a new employee. The staffing manager informs the project manager that Pat is on deck for the assignment. The project manager, having heard about Chris’s work at Acme Financial, has other ideas. She suggests that Chris be tapped for this assignment. Neither Chris nor Pat have the experience she would like, but she says, “Chris has at least seen some action. Pat has been doing what, exactly?”

The staffing manager, realizing the Acme Financial project is winding down anyway, decides this is not a battle worth fighting, and he agrees to make the switch. Chris will move to the new project, and Pat will go to Acme to get a little client experience while it wraps up. It’s no problem though, because Pat will get the chance to get on a new project in a few more weeks.

So even though both Chris and Pat were equal on day one, the organization develops a sense that Chris is on the fast track and devotes more and more resources to Chris and better opportunities for success. Meanwhile, Pat spends a lot of time waiting to be assigned to a project. The unspoken assumption becomes that Pat is simply not that good, and Pat continually loses out on opportunities. In just a few weeks, two equally promising new hires have taken dramatically different trajectories based solely on a coin flip.

People nod their heads and give their own examples of times they have seen the same story play out in their organizations. But some scientific-minded participants want to probe deeper. Where’s the evidence that the employees are initially equivalent and that the staffing process was random?

In the Human Resource Management Review article, Ragins & Winkel (2011) present a theory of how the combination of gender and emotion affect the evolution of power in work relationships. For simplicity, I’m focusing on the dynamic relationship between power and emotion only. The high-level narrative of the power portion of the theory is: power affects behaviors, expectations, and perceptions in such a way that power begets more power … and power loss begets less power. There are two reinforcing cycles of cause and effect: a virtuous cycle for the benefited party, and a vicious cycle for the disadvantaged one. So in classic Success to the Successful fashion, a small (even random) difference in the initial balance of power between two people could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of increasing power for the initially advantaged person. Meanwhile, the initially disadvantaged person experiences a cascading decline of power.

Research has further shown that people’s expectations distort their observations of emotions in a way that confirms their expectations. In other words, if I believe Chris has power, then I will tend to notice when Chris is acting powerfully and will tend to interpret his actions I notice as exhibiting power. And if I believe Pat has little power, then the same thing will occur except I tend to notice and interpret Pat’s supposed powerlessness. With these perceptions of power quickly getting reinforced, the organization will start to behave differentially toward Chris and Pat, in such a way that Chris has power bestowed, and Pat has power taken away.

What used to be a temporary imbalance in the power of our two otherwise equal new hires has now become a real problem for the organization. The imbalance becomes self-perpetuating. Before long, these disparities in perception can translate into real disparities in capabilities.

It is not uncommon to hear people defend the Success to the Successful archetype with some form of the question: we want the best to rise to the top, don’t we? And it is true that if we can’t differentiate the capabilities of new hires, then this “survival of the fittest” archetype will differentiate them for us. But the potential for random luck to determine the trajectories of people in our organizations should be of concern to leaders.

One reason for concern is economic. For most organizations, hiring a new employee is an expensive proposition. It can take months before a new hire is actually adding more value than they cost. The thought of some unappreciated underlying structure stacking the deck against a new hire should make anyone focused on the bottom line grind his or her teeth. Are we really letting so much of our investment in people evaporate because of these reinforcing cycles?

But other concerns are equally important. Are we really committed to having an organization with procedural justice? Are we willing to let so many of our people have their power and opportunities eroded due to these self-fulfilling prophecies which have little basis in real capability and potential? Are we screening candidates carefully and assessing their capabilities accurately, then engaging them in ways that afford them all the opportunity to flourish?

These questions are not new. But appreciating the dramatic impact that the power to the powerful dynamic has over time might be. Can you find examples of this archetype in your organization? Are you the victim (or the beneficiary) of this kind of story? Most importantly, what do you do about if you are? For answers, check out the upcoming post: Power to the Powerful: Taking Action.


 “Gender, emotion and power in work relationships” in Human Resource Management Review (2011), vol. 21, pp. 377-393. See this article (especially section 1.3.2 The role of power in emotion) for the references supporting the individual causal assertions