Despite organizations becoming more flat in recent years, it is still inevitable that power is not distributed evenly across the organization. A recent paper highlights some of the mendacious behaviors this can encourage in managers.
The study, which consisted of both virtual and real-world experiments, found that managers would often use various levels of blackmail to cajole their team to do certain things. It emerged that this successful was relatively successful provided it was done under a visage of friendliness. Interestingly, it also appears to suggest that such behavior can also be beneficial to those being extorted.
Rather alarmingly, the study found that roughly 50% of us will gladly take advantage of our peers should an opportunity arise. The study, which involved the classic Prisoners Dilemma game, found that players would often screw over their opponents, especially if the relationship was transitory in nature. If things were more long-term, then it made more sense to cooperate.
That’s fairly standard knowledge, but things became interesting when the researchers tinkered with the rules of the game. For instance, players were given the choice of changing their opponent if they felt they weren’t playing fairly, with that player then being suspended for a few rounds. The researchers wanted to try and replicate the threat of being fired.
When this was added to the equation, more players took advantage and decided to screw over their opponents and thus achieved stronger individual results than their peers in the control group.
Interestingly, it emerged that it was actually in the best interests of players to go along with this poor behavior, because by refusing to play along, they found themselves permanently on the unemployed pile, and therefore never cooperated with at all. As such, even though they were being taken advantage of by their powerful peers, they ended up with a greater payout than if they punished those powerful players by withholding cooperation.
Getting Inside the Behavior
When the participants were quizzed afterward about the reasons for their behavior, far from being a subtle and subconscious act, most openly admitted to knowing full well what they were doing. They accepted their lack of power in that situation and surmised the best course of action was to go along with things. Likewise, the powerful also admitted to being aware of the odds stacked in their favor and took advantage accordingly.
Of course, that isn’t to say that such situations are an open goal for the powerful to do as they please. Instead, the researchers suggest that exploiting the situation to the full does require a degree of skill, as a strategy of pure exploitation seldom works. Indeed, previous studies have shown that those on the receiving end are prepared to act against their self-interest if it allows them to punish those who take the proverbial.
“Without occasional cooperation, the system doesn’t work. It is therefore those people who appear to be friendly on the surface we maybe should be most wary of,” the authors say.
The results do suggest that extortionate behavior is rather more common than perhaps we have previously believed, though, especially in environments where a power imbalance exists.