Research Highlights

Power and Status at Play in Organizations

By Joe Magee and Adam Galinsky

Joe Magee

Like both human and non-human primate societies more generally, most, if not all, organizations have a stratified structure, a pyramid shape with fewer people at the top than at the bottom.

An understanding of power and status would seem essential when analyzing the dynamics at play in political or social organizations.  A paper by NYU Stern Professor Joe Magee, which recently won the Academy of Management Annals Decade Award, is particularly timely and relevant today.

The paper, “Social Hierarchy: The Self-Reinforcing Nature of Power and Status,” was co-authored with Columbia Business School’s Adam Galinsky. The authors, both experts on management and organizations, view power and status as key determinants of informal, or social, hierarchies.  Those with power – control over valued resources – think and act in ways that lead to their acquiring more of it. Those with status – respect in the eyes of others – benefit by receiving more opportunities for advancement. By integrating these concepts into a conceptual framework, the authors show why status and power hierarchies tend to be self-reinforcing.

In addition to serving a coordination function, making it clear who is in charge, hierarchies provide incentives for climbing the ladder. However, individuals’ opportunities for acquiring more status or power aren’t meted out equally.  Elevated power leads to increased access to rewards. Further, power-holders encounter less interference when pursuing those rewards, whereas low-power individuals are subject to more social and material threats. “Whereas the powerful see mostly opportunity dancing in front of them, the powerless are more likely to see potential hazards lurking about,” the authors write. In short, the powerful “experience a very different psychological world” than the powerless.

Negotiating provides a forum for the power and status dynamics to reveal themselves. Research shows that high-power negotiators were more than twice as likely to make a first offer than low-power counterparts. Because making the first offer leads to a distinct bargaining advantage, powerful individuals have yet another avenue for reinforcing – and expanding – their hold on power.

Still – hierarchies can change. Power and status can attenuate when the boss oversteps and takes extreme risks “that bring their organizations to the precipice.” And when high-power individuals abuse their positions, low-power individuals can be moved to take risks and act.