The origins of power
Dario Maestripieri writes that whatever strategy we use to rise to the top at work, in society or in the political sphere, we rely on power structures that are rooted in our evolutionary development.
Armies have a pyramid-like hierarchical structure, with one general at the top, many soldiers at the bottom and various officers ranked between them. Armies can serve a defensive function – to protect people and their properties – or an offensive one: to kill people and take or destroy their properties. Businesses, too, have a hierarchical structure, with a CEO at the top and many lower-ranking administrators and employees. The function of businesses is to generate profit and to make their employees (some more than others) rich. Finally, ladder-like structures, or ‘dominance hierarchies’, are present in groups of monkeys and apes. The function of primate groups is to protect their members from predators or from other groups.
Regardless of their different functions, the reasons why armies, businesses and primate groups exist and have a hierarchical structure are the same. People and monkeys organise themselves in groups simply because they are more effective at achieving their goals if they work as a team than if they work alone. No matter how cohesive these groups are, however, their members generally maintain a strong sense of individual identity and selfish tendencies. As a result, disagreements between individuals arise frequently.
In theory, these disagreements could be resolved through direct aggressive confrontation or negotiation between the parties involved. Continuous fighting or negotiation, however, could be harmful, stressful and expensive to the individual group members, as well as impairing their ability to work effectively as a team. A dominance hierarchy within the group ensures that disagreements are resolved without fighting or negotiation. Higher-ranking individuals impose their viewpoints on lower-ranking ones, and those at the top have power over everyone else. Everybody benefits from the dominance hierarchy (some more than others), and the group is stable.
Despotism versus egalitarianism
Hierarchical social systems can be despotic or egalitarian to a varying degree. A highly despotic system is a winner-takes-all society in which power and its associated privileges are in the hands of one individual. In such a system, being at the top or bottom of the hierarchy can make the difference between life and death, or between heaven and hell. Being number two is not bad, but not nearly as good as being number one.
In a despotic system, differences in rank are associated with large differences in power – such as in freedom of action, possession of material resources or influence on other individuals – and affect virtually every aspect of social life. Interactions between dominants and subordinates are asymmetrical and rarely reciprocal. Dominant individuals assert their power and privileges in every situation and are rarely friendly towards subordinates. Instead, dominants exploit subordinates and control their behaviour through intimidation, oppression or manipulation. Struggles for power among individuals of different rank are constant, but mobility across dominance ranks is allowed only through particular mechanisms or rules.
In a more egalitarian system, power and its benefits are distributed among many individuals. Although those in the top half of the hierarchy are generally better off than those in the bottom half, the difference is not great. Similarly, being promoted from number two to number one does not necessarily entail a big jump in power and benefits.
In such a system, differences in rank have a weak influence on social life. Social interactions are based more on cooperation and sharing, or negotiation and bargaining, than on oppression and exploitation. Dominance relationships are more transient and reversible, and are less associated with large differences in power among individuals. Dominant individuals are tolerant of subordinates and allow them a share of the pie almost as large as their own. Armies tend to be closer to the despotic end of the continuum, while businesses and primate groups can be relatively despotic or egalitarian depending on the company or the species, or on the personality and leadership style of the individual at the top (the alpha male or female).
Climbing the hierarchy
Whether hierarchical systems are despotic or egalitarian affects the benefits and costs of different social strategies for climbing the hierarchy, including the probability that a leader could be overthrown through a challenge, or coup d’état. This applies more to businesses and primate groups than to armies because in the latter, the structure of power is maintained or changed according to rigid rules, and social strategies have only a limited influence on these rules.
In despotic groups, there is strong pressure to use high-risk strategies for climbing the hierarchy because the potential benefits of alpha status are high. A coup d’état would have an especially high probability of success in small groups, in which the despot may have a weak base of support and be at risk of being betrayed by his or her closest supporters.
In egalitarian groups, there is less to gain from being a leader. Moreover, forceful attempts at takeover are likely to be unsuccessful because leaders typically have a large base of support (for example, a large political party representing the majority of voters in a population). This support is usually cemented by alliances among people who share many of the benefits of leadership. In this situation, successful strategies for climbing the hierarchy require an understanding of the dynamics of power, the formation of alliances with powerful individuals and a great deal of political manoeuvring.
These principles can explain the different social strategies that male rhesus macaques (highly social and aggressive monkeys that are widely distributed throughout Asia) use to climb the dominance hierarchy after they have immigrated into a new group, which typically occurs after puberty. ‘Unobtrusive immigrants’ enter the new group at the bottom of its hierarchy and gradually rise in rank over a period of several years. These males accept a seniority system of advancement in rank in which their status slowly rises with time spent in the group and as the higher-ranking males leave or die. This arrangement has also been called a ‘succession’ or ‘queuing system’, conveying the notion that the males patiently wait for their turn to become high ranking. If they stay in the group long enough and are lucky or skilled, they may manage to make it all the way to the top.
This seniority system is common in large groups of macaques, in which power and its privileges – for example, mating with attractive monkey females – are not monopolised by the alpha male but shared among several males. In the population of rhesus macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago, in Puerto Rico, where I do my research, the monkeys have plenty of food and live in groups of hundreds of individuals. In these groups, some alpha males are never challenged and maintain their status for up to 20 years.
This would not happen in the forests of Asia, where male macaques are lucky if they live past 10 or 12 years. There, alpha males are never left to die of old age; instead, they are challenged to a duel. It is rather like the Wild West of Sergio Leone’s and Clint Eastwood’s ‘spaghetti western’ movies, in which a lone stranger appears on his white horse out of nowhere and takes over the town by shooting the sheriff and his deputies, wasting no time on talk or politics. The males who use this strategy – known as ‘challenger immigrants’ – are usually in their physical prime; they are relatively young, strong and impulsive, and have no patience for waiting in a queue. Their challenges may be successful when they join a small group in which the alpha male enjoys many benefits but does not have a strong base of support and is not helped by other males when challenged.
In larger groups, despotic alpha males have built a system of alliances to protect their status and privileges. When ambitious males join one of these groups, their best bet is the ‘challenger resident’ strategy. Challenger residents do not immediately confront the alpha male. Instead, they start out as low ranking and concentrate on building alliances with other males. Only after they have identified the strengths and weaknesses of the alpha male, become familiar with social dynamics within the group and established political alliances with other males do they launch an attack on the alpha male. Given their knowledge and strategic ability, challenger residents are often successful in defeating the alpha male and taking his place at the top.
Making it in business
Similar to the male macaques who immigrate into a new group, people who have just been hired by a new company and have strong career ambitions must contend with an established power structure that is generally resistant to change. Senior employees who have worked hard to climb the hierarchy – whether they have made it all the way to the top or simply climbed one step up from the bottom – may not be happy to step aside and make room for a newcomer.
There are at least three different strategies for climbing the hierarchy in a company, which are roughly equivalent to the three strategies used by the immigrant male macaques. Similar to the unobtrusive immigrant, a new employee who takes the ‘good citizen’ approach is subservient to superiors, never challenges their authority, happily accepts all requests for extra work and patiently waits for promotions and salary increases, hoping that good behaviour will eventually be rewarded. More ambitious and self-confident new employees could directly challenge the boss and try to take over the company within a short period after their arrival. Finally, Machiavellian strategists could first acquire information about the power dynamics within the company, then build alliances with key individuals and, after a while, challenge the boss for the top spot.
Pointing out similarities between human behaviour and that of other primate species would not be interesting or useful if the explanations for behaviour were not similar as well. It turns out that the principles that explain the different social strategies of male macaques can also explain – with appropriate corrections for the species – human social and political strategies. In other words, whether one is better off being a good citizen, an impulsive challenger or a Machiavellian strategist depends on the extent to which the dominance hierarchy in the workplace is despotic or egalitarian, and whether the company is small or large. These factors all influence the relative benefits and costs of the different strategies.
Although the way people and monkeys play the game of politics is not exactly the same, the strategies for winning – and the consequences of winning or losing the game – are more similar than they are different.
Dario Maestripieri is a professor of comparative human development and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago in the US
Dario Maestripieri’s latest book, Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships, is published by Basic Books.
Case for Optimism
More than 200 people have attended events organised by Case for Optimism, an initiative set up in spring 2011 by Teo Greenstreet FRSA that encourages cultural leaders and arts practitioners to respond creatively to environmental and economic challenges.
The events are structured around eco-philosopher Joanna Macy’s framework for personal and social change. They aim to challenge participants to reflect on the crisis we are experiencing, to value the things we have already and to use their creative talents to imagine a better future. High-profile speakers have included Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology, whose Zero Carbon Britain project is developing a strategy for eliminating emissions from fossil fuels by 2030.
Together with colleagues Lucy Neal and Hilary Jennings, Greenstreet is now keen to use the RSA’s networks to extend Case for Optimism’s audience beyond the arts sector so that it includes people in leadership roles across all industries.
“I want to inspire a broader culture change in terms of the way we tackle issues such as the ongoing financial crisis, resource depletion and climate change,” he said. “To achieve this, leaders need to see the personal and professional spheres as interlinked, and develop a common set of values that informs their behaviour in both.”
Visit the Case for Optimism website to find out more or to offer your support.