The first and foremost important lesson I learned from these simulations is that we don’t just occupy only one level or belong to only one group in any system.
The top-middle-bottom resides simultaneously in all of us, but depending on the situation, we evoke only one level at the moment of that situation. The majority of the time we cross these boundaries without giving any thought to it. For example, a manager within a large organization may be at the lowest rank of managers, but is at the top as far as her group of direct reports is concerned, and at the middle between her people and her boss. The CEO of a privately owned company still has to report to the board of directors, and (theoretically) is beholden to the shareholders.
The second interesting lesson is that no matter how much the participants want to change the system, to two-tier or by not participating, the overall dynamics always propel people into three-tier structures. In one of the simulations, one participant from the outset insisted that she not be counted in, and we honored her wish. However, before long, someone else, having experienced a little bit of the tension, wanted to join her. After a while, this “no-see-em” ensemble became a group with its naturally accrued power (given by the system) which other participants wanted to draw into their dynamics. The reason is this: As soon as a group, however small, is delineated, there arise a boundary and a mirror/comparison group for the others. After a while, the 4-tier system reverted back to 3-tier-like dynamics.
An interesting development about the “no-see-em” group: This was the group that had the true power, precisely because the members didn’t want to have any power. They had least amount to lose, and became the “target” for other groups to recruit.
I will now try to offer some summary of characterization for each of the group. But please note: None of these assigned characters is meant as permanent group features; the characters are only possible in the whole system.
The TOP This level is largely responsible for the long-term health of an organization. People at this level typically deal with very complex issues, but often do so with spotty information. And they seem to be always pressed for time. Yet they also have to stay current on the daily operations. Others outside this group view these people as: aloof, arrogant, arbitrary, mechanistic, isolated, non-responsive, and out-of-touch.
Often we scratch our heads or watch in amazement/amusement the top’s lame responses to some crises or outcries. In 2009, when the auto executives showed up at the Congressional hearing for potential bail out, they traveled in their corporate jets! Out of touch, indeed. In one of the simulations, at one point, the participants of the top group wanted to appease the others by sharing with others some of their possessions. What did they choose to offer? Their hoes! They were baffled by the sneering reaction. They were genuine in their desire and offer, but were totally out of touch with the essence of what others would really like, such as true cooperation, autonomy, or power sharing. The top were sincere, they just totally didn’t get “it.” As a result, the gesture was empty; people saw right through it.
The top’s world is of “possibilities and complications.”
The BOTTOM group is always eager to do meaningful work, but often feel disconnected with the rest of the organization, its goals and missions. Hence, they often turn to each other for support. However, while they form a solidarity within the group they also experience the inevitable internal disagreements and the attending tensions. These tensions are often suppressed for the sake of solidarity. In the eyes of outsiders, these members are inflexible and resistant to influence. They are either loyal or selfish, creative or childish, trusting or demanding, naïve or impatient, depending on how they handle their internal conflicts. Remember: Even a manager can be of the bottom group.
While the bottom seek meaningful work, need direction, and want to respond to sensible guidance, they see little direction, poor communication (it’s never just communication), absence of any big picture, and unfair treatment. Their world is full of vulnerability.
The MIDDLE People occupying this level want to be connected to both top and bottom; they want to serve the goals of the top while taking concerns of the bottom seriously. But often in the process, they get confused and muddled and end up not connecting to one another. As a group, they are often viewed by others as “hard-working, responsible, well-intentioned” but also “weak, wishy-washy, powerless, and uninformed.” Yet, this is the group, more than others, that is committed to the integration of the whole organization. Their world is of “commitment and tearing.”
Kenwyn Smith’s summary of the dynamic of the whole in this way, “This creates a ‘world’ of possibility on one hand and of stress on the other hand.”
The stress factors for the three groups of tops, middles, bottoms are “complications,” “tearing,” “vulnerability,” correspondingly. The opportunities for each group therefore are:
- TOPS – Focus & Channeling Energy (to ease up complications)
- MIDDLES – Integration (to mend the tearing)
- BOTTOMS – Improving Work Process (to gain more control)
For the tops, they desperately need to be more connected with both middles and bottoms. Ironically, they often surround themselves with a lot of gatekeepers. Townhall meetings are one of those empty gestures, unless some ideas from those meetings are actually addressed. Allowing people share their exclusive dinning area is beyond empty-gesturing; it’s downright insulting. What happened to simply walking up to someone and talking? Talking in a genuine manner? I am sure one can write a whole book about being genuine.
Similarly, the middles should invest more time in their own cohesion. But they often run around and complain that they don’t have enough time. The bottoms should be consulted more often on how the work is actually done, instead of the usual top-directed manner. What this group often neglects to notice is that they can take initiatives to improve their immediate environment, rather than always reacting to the environment.
Finally, the grand lesson is that it’s unlikely that individuals can just change a system, either by revolution or fiat. Further, while these system dynamics feel debilitating and depressing, we are not saying that it’s hopeless. However, we do say that only when we can understand the system and be keenly aware of our various roles, can we begin to hope to bring about real change. At the very least, gaining awareness means that we are less likely to be tripped up or trapped, and if we are, hopefully, not for long. We’d still be “stuck” in top-middle-bottom, but we have a better chance to get out of the straightjacket more quickly.
We often hear the argument, “Nah, I am not that reactionary; people in ‘real’ life are much more nuanced. We aren’t easily trapped.” So, this series continues. I’ll bring some nuanced illustrations from Smith’s observation of a real school system next time. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
Direct Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.