Culture & Society

Hardwired for Hierarchy: Our Relationship With Power

If we want to change power structures, then we need to understand the animal forces that drive our behavior.

January 24, 2024

Photo by Nancy Rothstein

The more society has advanced, the more we’ve grown to acknowledge the importance of equality. Yet, even as we attempt to organize our homes, workplaces, and communities in increasingly egalitarian ways, our behavior reveals a competing urge. As Deborah H. Gruenfeld, The Joseph McDonald Professor and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business observes, wherever there are humans, there are hierarchies. “People have a tendency to form hierarchies almost instantly in all kinds of organizational settings, whether the task requires it or not,” she says.

Across the animal kingdom, dominance hierarchies inform the way social creatures interact. And while people might think that our more evolved brains and advanced social dynamics put us above the kinds of behavior seen in dogs or apes, Gruenfeld says our actions are still very much steered by primal drives. She unpacks this in a recent episode of If/Then: Business, Leadership, Society.

“One of the ways in which we’re like animals is that we need to organize ourselves in order to survive,” says Gruenfeld, who studies group dynamics and decision-making. “It’s a very basic instinct to create structures in groups that help members coordinate so they don’t have to fight with one another.”

In addition to helping us cooperate, hierarchies also create much-needed psychological safety. “We are desperate to belong in groups,” Gruenfeld says. It’s a “source of security to know who’s responsible for what, who’s going to lead, who’s going to follow, and it gives everyone a script to follow so they know how to behave in a way that’s going to keep them on the inside in the group.”

Gruenfeld’s insights open a discussion about how we can modify existing hierarchies to create relationships, organizations, and the society we want. As this episode of If/Then explores, if we want to change power structures, then we need to understand the animal forces that drive our behavior.

If/Then is a podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business that examines research findings that can help us navigate the complex issues we face in business, leadership, and society. Each episode features an interview with a Stanford GSB faculty member.

Full Transcript

Kevin Cool: If we want to change power structures, then we need to understand the animal forces that drive our behavior.

Ali Sutch: Most of the clients I’m working with have what I would loosely describe as big feelings: so barking, lunging, growling, biting in different situations.

Kevin Cool: Ali Sutch is a professional dog trainer in Oakland, California.

Ali Sutch: I ascribe to positive reinforcement training, science-based, evidence-based.

Kevin Cool: She’s at a dog park in the East Bay, observing dogs playing happily off leash, and some not so happily.

Ali Sutch: We just saw over there, one dog was chasing another dog. The other dog was like yelping and trying to get away.

Kevin Cool: Playing and aggression can be a struggle for control between dogs.

Ali Sutch: When I help clients and other people that come to me look at videos of their dog playing with other dogs and help interpret what’s going on, a lot of what we see that some people might interpret as play is really dogs negotiating.

Kevin Cool: To help dogs get along with their humans and the other dogs they interact with, Ali has to understand the situation they are in and what might be driving their emotional state.

Ali Sutch: I have a case right now with a dog who resource guards a lot of items. One time she actually took my shoe and could not get it back. And I left with one shoe on my foot. There are always two things, no matter what we’re talking about, in terms of modifying really intense fear, aggression, resource guarding-based behavior is change the behavior by changing the emotional response. So, we’re trying to teach this dog that when somebody approaches you when you have a shoe, a pair of sunglasses, whatever it happens to be that she’s guarding, good things will happen.

Kevin Cool: For dogs, Ali says it’s not as simple as who is in charge.

Ali Sutch: It’s less so about a dog being the alpha or being dominant or anything like that. It’s more about just individual preferences and what happens to be going on in that moment. A lot of it is information gathering. So yeah, this dog right here, I’m going to sniff your butt, but I don’t want you to get behind me because that makes me feel vulnerable. So, maybe there is some power in terms of like how vulnerable they’re making themselves, like how comfortable am I to let another dog approach me from behind or not.

Kevin Cool: I always see similarities between the instincts that drive dogs’ behavior and the instincts that drive humans.

Ali Sutch: If you’re at dinner with somebody and they’re really annoying you and you shift your body away or make a face or something, that that’s going to be a signal to the other person that you need space. And that’s a lot of what we see in dog interactions is them using their body language to either ask or space or try to decrease that distance or to show some kind of expression of emotion.

Kevin Cool: People may assume that our more evolved brains and advanced social dynamics put humans above the kind of behavior we see in dogs, but what if we’re at the mercy of the same drives? What if our attempts to flatten hierarchies or redistribute power are subject to the same primitive forces no matter what higher reasoning we bring to bear?

This is If/Then, a podcast from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where we examine research findings that can help us navigate the complex issues facing us in business, leadership, and society. I’m Kevin Cool, senior editor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Today we speak with Deborah Gruenfeld, the Joseph McDonald Professor and Professor of Organizational Behavior at the GSB. The if/then statement for this episode is, if we want to change power structures, then we need to understand the animal forces that drive our behavior.

So, I thought we would start today by talking about humans as animals. Obviously, we are a highly evolved species, but your research demonstrates the degree to which we are animals and that, to a certain extent, instincts drive our behavior. How does that play out in an organizational setting where people are trying to navigate the dynamics that that produces?

Deborah Gruenfeld: One of the ways in which we are like animals is that we need to organize ourselves in order to survive. It’s not intuitive because we have this sense that in modern civilized society people have a tendency to prefer equality and egalitarian kinds of organizing structures to more hierarchical ones.

But what you find when you look at how people behave despite what they say they value, people have a tendency to form hierarchies almost instantly in all kinds of organizational settings, whether the task requires it or not, in part because it’s a very basic instinct to create structures and groups that help members coordinate so they don’t have to fight with one another, so that they know who has which rights and privileges, and that they’re able to select leaders that are going to benefit the group to the greatest extent. So, those are very primal instincts, and they really operate in humans just the way they do in animals.

Kevin Cool: So, hierarchies themselves, to your point that we say we want a kind of egalitarian society, but hierarchies have been part of the human experience since the beginning, and we’re still seeing that. To some degree, are we trying to find our place in that hierarchy?

Deborah Gruenfeld: Yeah. I mean, it’s a very interesting combination of psychological motives that are connected to these evolutionary drives. One is that we rely on leaders and on structures that allow us to cooperate with one another, but the other is that we are desperate to belong in groups. So, it’s very important for survival that individuals are not alone. And in part what this means is that knowing that people value hierarchies, one of the most important skillsets I would say that human beings have is to figure out where they belong and how to contribute in a way that’s valued so they can be part of the group.

And there’s a lot of interesting research that shows — again, it’s not super intuitive — but many individuals prefer lower ranks in a hierarchical group to not being in the group at all. So, they accept those positions. It is oddly a strange source of security to know who’s responsible for what, who’s going to lead, who’s going to follow. And it gives everyone a scrip0t to follow so they know how to behave in a way that’s going to keep them on the inside in a group and not get them ostracized.

Kevin Cool: So, that’s interesting. Can you say a little bit more about that? How do we know that that’s how people feel about power and whether they want it or not?

Deborah Gruenfeld: I mean, these are very well-established findings in the psychology literature. I think some of the most interesting studies around hierarchy, some of them were conducted at Stanford by some colleagues and coauthors of mine who looked at how it is that people are able to form hierarchies so readily without fighting, without ever talking about what they’re doing.

And what they discovered in these experiments is that you put a pair of individuals in a room, and one of them is a naive participant, and the other one is a confederate who works for the experimenter. And you sit them across from one another and ask them to talk about art, for example. The way that the confederate physically positions him or herself tends to bring out the opposite posture in their partner. So, if you were across from a dominant person, you tended to make yourself a little bit smaller. If you were across from a submissive person, you tended to make yourself a little bit bigger.

The vast majority of pairs not only worked that out in terms of agreement on a hierarchy just through nonverbal behavior, but they also reported liking their partner much better if they had managed to form a hierarchy than if they hadn’t. So, if they were trying to get themselves into the same rank position, they didn’t like the person, they didn’t want to work with the person, again, going forward. So, it’s just an interesting demonstration of how important the ability to agree on a hierarchy is in terms of just establishing rapport in a cooperative relationship.

Kevin Cool: So, it’s established that we like hierarchies, and yet, we do seem to have this desire or wish for more equality. How do we reconcile that desire with what seems to be a kind of basic foundational characteristic of humans, and how much of that is changeable?

Deborah Gruenfeld: So, there’s a very interesting, I guess, hypothesis that I have that I have discussed with people a lot but have not studied specifically, and that has to do with how people work this out in marriages. Marital context is very interesting where people have these same motives and drives and they’re trying to make their relationship work. I think what happens in a lot of marriages is that there’s an agreement about who’s in charge of what.

So, the closest you can get to equality is that one member of the pair has decision rights around a certain set of responsibilities and demands for the relationship in the household and the other person has responsibility and decision rights for another set. So, I think in a marriage context, that’s what I think equality looks like. It’s not the absence of hierarchy; it’s a flexible hierarchy that makes it possible to avoid having conflict over every joint decision that has to be made, and gives parties equal rights across issues, but not necessarily within issues. So, that’s one context that I think is interesting.

There’s this other interesting thing about what this looks like in organizations which is that it’s possible for leaders and people in positions of power to behave in a way that let’s others know they’re in charge and that they’re taking the responsibilities of being in charge and having power seriously while also creating space through processes and structures for bottom-up influence.

So, it’s possible to have a meeting in which your subordinates get to make the decision, but it’s your meeting, you decide when it’s being held, you decide when it starts, you decide when it ends. And your approach to managing it is to let people know that you’re not going to let the process run off the rails. You’re there to supervise and make sure they get where they want to go. So, I think it’s actually possible to combine these things.

What sometimes gets lost, and I think where a lot of managers struggle, is that because they’re so uncomfortable with the idea of power and hierarchy is that they assume they should not take ownership of the authority that they have and pretend that it doesn’t exist to try to keep things more equal than they are.

Kevin Cool: Are there strategies for people with less power who can work together to overcome people who are abusing power?

Deborah Gruenfeld: A hundred percent. Good question. So, one of the things you’re trying to overcome in situations like this is that there is also a sense that individuals feel very vulnerable to their counterparts who have more power. I mean, often those people control access to everything they care about: getting promotions, getting paid, getting good projects, getting fired.

There are a lot of interesting examples of how people can work together to deal with these kinds of things. I mean, one of them is just recognizing that part of what needs to happen is you have to shift the balance of power, and you can do that by creating coalition. So, there’s strength in numbers. One person complaining about a bad boss does not have nearly the same protection or impact as a group of people complaining about the person altogether.

There’s a great story that I heard of. One of my executive education students who works at a large company that’s in a fairly I would say male dominated industry and in a company that she described as not being super friendly to women. There were a lot of managers who women found it hard to work with. They were demeaning sometimes, created hostile work environment, treated men differently than women and all of the kinds of things you’d expect to see in a context like that.

And what she said she’d observed for many years was that there were individuals filing complaints with the HR department about this one specific manager. I think maybe there was more than one. But there were many people filing grievances and nothing was happening. This is what many people are used to seeing, that you complain and there’s no evidence that it’s had any effect at all.

So, someone in their group of women who were talking about the issue had the idea that it might be more effective if anyone who had a grievance filled out a form and submitted it all at 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning. So, they all submitted grievances at the same time. And she said it was like a bomb went off in the company because what seemed like something that would be easy to dismiss based on one person complaining who may have personal issues with the person, you’re suddenly dealing with a group of people who are communicating, cooperating, organizing, and you can’t write them off as it’s their problem and not the person in the position of power.

So, they said people were fired immediately, people were given raises immediately. She said that the company immediately addressed the issues, and it was just because they had taken action in a way that changed the balance of power.

Kevin Cool: That’s a great example of a group of people exerting power in a way that an individual just couldn’t. So, switching gears just a bit. Similar to hierarchy, humans, based on your research, have a primal drive toward being with people who are similar to us. So, whether it’s evolutionary coding or conditioning, we seem to resist diversity at some level. Obviously, a lot of organizations now are trying to diversify their workplaces and create a welcoming environment for lots of different kinds of people. What are we trying to overcome to make that happen?

Deborah Gruenfeld: I mean, it’s very interesting. So, in part what we’re trying to overcome is the fact that people just feel more secure with people who are like them in close proximity.

So, what a lot of people find in organizations and in industries where there are attempts to diversity — for example, let’s say there are industries like medicine would be an example that were initially not very open to women — what you’ll find is that as more women enter a workforce or an industry that used to be male dominated, they’ll start to be subspecialities where women are gathering in let’s say pediatrics, for example, and men are gathering in other subspecialties. So, even as you try to bring different kinds of people together so that we can learn from one another, there’s this very basic instinct that we have to spend as much time as we can with people who are just like we are.

I find it so interesting that if you look at the main challenges that organizations are dealing with and have been dealing with for many decades now, one of them is how to make their organization less hierarchical, how to empower the workers, how to create a more egalitarian culture in which everyone feels like they belong. There’s this constant drive to try to get rid of hierarchy. And the reason that you’re always reading about empowering people and how important it is, is because it’s impossible to get rid of hierarchy. [If it] weren’t difficult, everyone would just be running around in egalitarian flat organizations.

And the same is true with the similar point, which is that there are a lot of good reasons to create organizations with maximal diversity in the sense that you’re much more likely to learn from other people, there’s more creativity coming out of groups where people are looking at things from different perspectives. Diverse groups are very good at solving problems for which the obvious solutions are unknown because of how they look at things. But as organizations get more diverse, people have a tendency to create fault lines in the demographic so that they’re spending most of their time with people who make them feel most like they belong and are accepted and are valued because of how they are.

Kevin Cool: You’re listening to If/Then, a podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. We’ll continue our conversation after the break.

We’ve been talking about how we are, to some degree, at the mercy of our animalistic behavior. Is it about overcoming these tendencies around power or accepting them?

Deborah Gruenfeld: That’s a really good question. I think the first step is acceptance. I think the first step is acknowledging that power differences exist and that there are situations in which other people are needier and more vulnerable than we are. I think it’s very natural for people, even people in positions of power, to walk into situations feeling vulnerable, thinking of themselves as having fears and needs and to lose track of the fact that they’re actually much less vulnerable than other people are. There are things that we know about the contexts in which people are most likely to use power badly. And I think there are choices we can make as powerholders or in dealing with powerholders to lower the likelihood of bad things happening.

So, an example would be when a lot of bad behavior by powerholders tends to happen when they feel injured, insecure, threatened, or exhausted. And recognizing that there are moments where everyone’s at risk because of what the person in charge is dealing with and dispersing in those moments as opposed to trying to keep things going, I think is a really interesting one.

Abuses of power are more likely to happen in contexts where the norms of appropriate behavior are kind of murky. So, when we have a meeting in an office building with a conference with windows everywhere in the middle of the day and people are dressed for work, it’s very clear what’s professional, what’s not professional, and people are watching. When you start to move outside of a context, a physical context where the norms are not so clear, everyone gets at risk again.

So, being in the office after hours late at night is an example, or going to a bar after a big meeting, or being in an offsite, or being at a conference. These are all situations where power differences that exist in a work context, there’s motivation to make them go away, like you just want to relate to the person on a friendly level. And so, no one’s really thinking about the power differences anymore, at least the people in power usually aren’t. And it’s easier to cross a line and not have anyone recognize that a line is being crossed.

It’s interesting to think about contexts, too, as a way of overcoming these things. Some of that responsibility is obviously on the people in positions of power, but there are things the rest of us can do to make sure that we’re not putting ourselves and our bosses in situations where they’re at risk for crossing boundaries as well.

Kevin Cool: Do you think more people should be interested in getting power or wielding power?

Deborah Gruenfeld: Definitely. So, it’s very interesting. One of the conclusions from our research on power is that what power does to people is bring out their most basic instincts and impulses. And because of how we’re socialized in the world, there are people for whom power is very attractive and it’s easy for them to see themselves in positions and power and they like the idea of having control, and there are people who don’t really want to step into the arena.

And so, in some ways, when a lot of people are opting out of the idea of being in power and taking control of situations where we’re leaving those positions to maybe the most competitive people, maybe the people who need power the most in order to feel secure in themselves. We have some studies that show that that’s true as well.

So yeah, my sense has always been that because of some of the fears about being in positions of power, I think there is a lot of fear about the level of responsibly that comes with power and the difficult choices that you’d have to make. There are a lot of people who really avoid those positions. And I think the world would be better if there were people who were willing to take on positions of power out of responsibility for other people as opposed to being driven to power for more personal reasons.

Kevin Cool: I’m just curious, Deb, what drew you to this research in the first place?

Deborah Gruenfeld: So, I’ve had a sense of myself as someone who kind of sees everything but doesn’t feel empowered to do anything. It’s been a personal struggle for me just trying to find my own agency, I would say. Maybe because I’m a woman, maybe because I’m introverted. Maybe because my dad was a Holocaust survivor, and I think some of his sense of powerlessness coming out of that trickled down in my life and in my family.

But I do have this one very vivid example that came to me after I started to think a little bit about power from a job that I had before I went into academia. So, I worked for a short time between college and graduate school in public relations. And I, as a very junior person, as an assistant to a publicist and our client was Jann Wenner, who’s the founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. And he’s a very powerful entertainment industry executive, and it was definitely the most famous person I had ever met at the time.

And I went to a meeting in his office at 9:00 in the morning, and what happened in that meeting was really shocking to me. Having normal work conversations, he had a refrigerator right at the side of his desk, and he reached over and opened up the refrigerator and took out a bottle of vodka and took out a bag of onions. And while we were talking just the way you and I are talking now, he took the lid off the bottle and drank vodka straight out of the bottle in the meeting and took the onions out and was snacking on onions. And I remember thinking like this is strange. I’ve never seen anything like this.

I was looking at my boss; she wasn’t reacting. He seemed to think it was perfectly fine. He didn’t even offer to share anything with us. But it really was an event that as I started to think about power really struck me that there’s something that happens to people in positions of power that leads them to stop self-regulating, stop trying to control their behavior in the ways that most of us are doing on a regular basis. And that was an intuition that I ended up doing a lot of work on just trying to understand really the psychology of people in positions of power.

And very much consistent with what we saw, we just tend to find that when you take a random sample of people from any population you can think of — students or participants in studies. All these are experimental studies that I did — and put them in some type of position where we’ve given them power over someone else in a totally arbitrary way, we find that they’re just more likely to act on whatever impulses they have, and this is true for anybody who we put in these situations.

Kevin Cool: If/Then is produced by Jesse Baker and Eric Nuzum of Magnificent Noise for Stanford Graduate School of Business. Our show is produced by Jim Colgan and Julia Natt. Mixing and sound design by Kristin Mueller. From Stanford GSB, Jenny Luna, Sorel Husbands Denholtz and Elizabeth Wyleczuk-Stern.

If you enjoyed this conversation, we’d appreciate you sharing this with others who might be interested and hope you’ll try some of the other episodes in this series. For more on our professors and their research, or to discover more podcasts coming out of Stanford GSB, visit our website at Find more on our YouTube channel. You can follow us on social media at StanfordGSB. I’m Kevin Cool.

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