Getting ahead at work: social class divide, power and office politics

A new study from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business has 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 people from lower social classes from seeking positions of power in the first place. The paper, co-authored by Peter Belmi of the Darden School of Business and Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, claims that most people believe that getting ahead requires a mixture of pro-social behavior – such as being competent, hard-working, and a team player; and political behaviour – such as being outspoken, flattering, and treating others as “resources”. According to the research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, inequality begins to thrive in the disparity between which groups are actually willing to put both behaviours into practice. Even though everyone derides political angling, 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 more broadly,” said Prof. Belmi.

 

The study argues that the notion that political behaviour is required for advancement dissuades relatively low-class individuals from seeking positions of power because they see such behaviours as abrasive to their values and beliefs.

To explain the root cause, Professor Belmi points to previous studies, which 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.” He adds that another study has shown that “they are not as narcissistic as their high-class counterparts.”

With these values, it is perhaps no surprise that low-class individuals tend to find political maneuvering especially “unpleasant and distasteful,” which dissuades “them from seeking that advancement in the first place.”

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 (Study 2), and when they reconstrue power as serving a superordinate goal of helping others (Study 4). Moreover, we checked the robustness of our findings by measuring social class in a number of ways within each study, and examined whether our results held across each measure.”

“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.”

According to the researchers, 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 to include the good of the community with the good of the individual. 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 Prof. Belmi’s top three recommendations for creating a more level playing field across class boundaries:

  1. Create a culture of merit-based advancement. Make promotions and other competitions as transparent as possible by providing clear metrics for evaluation, based on competence and technical skills.
  2. 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.
  3. Last but not least, have an honest look at your firm’s culture, and make efforts to fix problems of stigma and prejudice, particularly in hiring and promotion cycles.
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