Getting ahead at work: social class divide, power and office politics
Why is it that individuals with relatively high social class often dominate the upper ranks of management in offices across the country?
A study I recently conducted with Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that class-based inequality in the workplace persists not only because of external factors like bias and “glass ceilings,” but also because of structural factors that discourage relatively low-class individuals from seeking positions of power in the first place.
In the paper, we found that most people believe that getting ahead in the office requires a mixture of pro-social behaviors - such as being competent, hard-working, and a team player; and political behaviors - such as being self-promoting, flattering, and treating others as “resources”.
According to the results, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, inequality begins to thrive when advancement dynamics in organizations require political maneuvering. Even though everyone derides political maneuvering, it turns out that relatively high-class individuals are still willing to play the game to get ahead. Not so with lower-class individuals.
Compared with individuals with relatively high social class, those with relatively low social class are less interested in seeking positions of power using political means, and as a result are less interested in seeking positions of power.
A different focus
The notion that political behavior is required for advancement dissuades relative low-class individuals from seeking positions of power because they see such behaviors as abrasive to their values and beliefs.
Previous studies have found that people of relatively low social class are more strongly focused on others and less focused on themselves. This manifests as being more oriented toward interdependence, community and harmony: They pay more attention to the emotions of others, listen more empathetically to the perspectives of others, give more weight to social and communal relationships than to monetary gain, and feel more strongly opposed to advancement at the expense of others. There are also some studies that have shown that individuals with relatively low social class are not as narcissistic as their high-class counterparts.
People of relatively low social class are more strongly focused on others and less focused on themselves.
With these values, it is perhaps no surprise that low-class individuals tend to find political maneuvering unpleasant and distasteful, which dissuades them from seeking advancement.
Politics vs prosocial
The findings of seven different studies indicate that, even though individuals with relatively low social class see political behavior as necessary and effective for acquiring positions of power, they are reluctant to do it; as a result, they have a weaker tendency to seek positions of power compared to individuals with relatively high social class.
Consistent with our theorizing, we also found that individuals with relatively low social class intend to seek positions of power as much as their high-class counterparts when they can acquire it through prosocial means, and when they reconstrue power as serving a superordinate goal of helping others.
Together, our findings suggest that the common belief that political behavior is required for advancement may help explain why class inequalities persist and why creating class-based diversity in upper-level positions poses a serious challenge.
How to level the playing field in your office
Managers may encourage individuals with relatively low social class to seek advancement by creating more merit-based cultures. They may also help socially-disadvantaged individuals overcome their aversion for office politics by helping them reframe the purpose of seeking power as a way of bringing good to their community.
By reframing the purpose of power, lower-class individuals may feel that arriving at the top need not conflict with their core values and sense of self.
Here are my top three recommendations for creating a more level-playing field across class boundaries:
- Create a culture of merit-based advancement. Make promotions and advancement competitions as transparent as possible by providing clear metrics for evaluation, based on competence, good citizenship, and technical skills.
- In so far as office politics are unavoidable, remind people that positions of power should be understood primarily for the impact and benefit they can confer on others.
- Create a culture of inclusiveness, where people are able to authentically express important aspects of their identity.
Peter Belmi is an Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He is interested in the causes and consequences of inequality, why it tends to persist, and how it...