March 22, 2017
I recently participated in a power system exercise. It was based on the research of Barry Oshry. Essentially, within any type of organization (this also applies to our personal organizational structures, such as families and friend groups), people fall into certain roles: tops make the decisions and shape the vision, middles work to execute the vision of the tops as well as prioritize the needs of both tops and bottoms, and bottoms are the ones completing the work. It is important to note that we tend to float between the levels based on situations, areas of expertise, etc. For example, a CEO is considered a top in most instances, but in the board room, the CEO becomes a middle (or even a bottom). Read more about Oshry’s work here.
In the exercise, we were divided into four groups: tops, middles, bottoms, and customers. I was designated as a bottom. As a bottom, I had to give up my shoes, and my fellow bottoms and I were to be paid $1 per day for our work (three per group). There were a number of other rules: bottoms were not allowed to move from their area, middles could move between the bottoms and the tops, the tops controlled the funds, etc. The customers were seeking various types of work, ranging from a new holiday campaign to benefit the retail industry to advice on an innovative idea for Amtrak. We worked for four 12-minute days.
While I could write a thesis-length paper on what ensued, the takeaway from this experience is how quickly we all fell into the stereotypes of our given roles. For example, as a bottom, I felt resentful. All bottoms were grouped in teams of three, but then a fourth was added to our group, which meant we would be paid less than the other middles. On the second day, two of us were moved to the creative group, now a group of five, with even less pay — actually, we never got paid, but the original three of the creative group got shoes and got paid. (Can you hear my resentment?)
After day two, we participated in what is known as a TOOT (Time Out of Time), where each group was asked questions by the facilitator. The tops complained that work wasn’t getting done and the customers were annoying. The middles felt torn between the needs, such as getting paid, getting shoes from the bottoms, and dealing with the unclear demands of the tops. And the bottoms, well, we had no real idea what we were supposed to be doing, we had no idea who the tops were, and we couldn’t easily collaborate with the other bottoms to effectively complete our work.
After hearing the issues and the complexities each group faced, one would assume that the next two days would be better, and day three was, except when a middle got so annoyed when we asked about getting paid or for shoes, he threw three dollars at our table of five — not enough for everyone. But by day four, the customers were frustrated due to lack of product , or because the product wasn’t what they had envisioned due to the lack of communication. The tops were panicking, the middles were being torn between the needs of the bottoms, such as what the client really wants, and the tops, who were pushing everyone to rush. The middles had no idea how to prioritize, and the bottoms' resentment turned to frustration and false assumptions — "the tops don't care about us, they're only interested in paying themselves." At the end of day four, the tops hadn’t paid anyone (not even themselves), and the clients received mediocre work.
Of course, this was not real, but it felt real. The chaos and the lack of communication all felt very real in the moment.
What this taught me is that it is so easy to get caught up in our roles. As tops, we can easily forget the needs of the bottoms because we’re out of touch, and then place expectations on the middles to “take care” of that, but middles suffer from being torn between the tops and the bottoms and struggle to prioritize the needs of both. However, as a bottom who resented not getting paid, I had no idea the middles also were not being paid.
Ultimately, and I have written about this in the past, before slipping into resentment, ignoring the needs of others, or making false assumptions, it is important to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and never assume it is about you or it is malicious in any way. Regardless of our roles, we need to think of the greater good of the company and find ways to break through the organizational dynamics that can cause us to slip into unproductive roles. There will always be tops, middles and bottoms. When we are a top, we need to remember the needs we have felt as bottoms and vice versa. This is not to say there won’t ever be chaos, but if we all take an empathetic approach, it will make it much easier to work through the chaos and successfully emerge as a productive team.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Director, Graduate Studies