Power Play: Acting in an Open Office Floor Plan

It might surprise you, dear reader, to learn that one of the most popular courses at the Stanford Graduate School of Business is an acting course. Entitled “Acting with Power,” it’s an exercise in improv and stage setting, teaching would be Gordon Gekkos how to play high/low status and take on an “authoritative role.” The incorporation of the art of acting into the world of the corporate power struggle isn’t entirely amazing — any tool or stratagem will be put to use in those wars — but changes in the nature of work is making acting a significantly more important part of the corporate play.

Without explicit titles and roles, the way we learn who is in command is based solely on the subtle signals that they send; the minute ways they carry themselves.

In this age of flat-org charts and open office floor plans, corporate power is allocated through appearance and performance. Since power is less conferred through traditional hierarchies, it has been replaced with the vaguely democratic world also known as co-workers that end up giving someone power. The audience — in this case our corporate peers — look to our performances to see where we fit in the hierarchy. The shift away from established hierarchies has made it more important to appear authoritative — of acting so that others see you as someone with authority.

Ask More Questions

Economic change and social movements have changed the nature of corporations. The traditional image of a rigid fiefdom no longer holds. Famed Intel CEO Andy Grove describes the changes in his management book, High Output Management, as the result of an increasing reliance on specialized knowledge workers. It’s not practical or desirable to structure an organization in the way of a pyramid, with the head honcho twenty layers above the laborer, when the decisions that need to be made almost always require significant input from that laborer. Decentralized decision-making — a requirement when dealing with many of the problems faced by modern corporations — requires empowering individual staff. Additionally, cultural change seems to promote the move to flatter organizations. Enough has been written ad nauseam about ‘Millennials’ and how we answer to no man or god, that I won’t describe the cultural change in depth — but suffice to say, much like that Tinder app we supposedly love, we’re not afraid to swipe left on highly rigid enterprises.

Organization Types (Source: Jacob Morgan/The Future of Organization/Forbes)

Source: © Jacob Morgan/The Future of Organization/Forbes

A flat corporate structure is one with few layers between staff and management, and where roles and connections between individuals are much more fluid and dynamic. Think of it as a network of nodes, where nodes (people) drop in and out and the edges between those nodes (relationships) are established and broken frequently.

Admittedly there are still tons of bureaucracies that hold to seniority and more formal power transfer processes — shout out to all the people in the military reading SixByEight Press! — but even those are at least paying lip service to moving to organization structures similar to startups, and it seems likely that this is a change that will continue in many different sectors.

Thought leaders in particular seem universally excited by this trend. Your average TED talk or executive training course extols the value and beauty of the flat structure, and encourages more decentralization and empowerment. The stated reasons usually end in empowering the individual, thereby leading to a more inclusive and egalitarian environment; one where everyone’s opinion is valued. It dovetails nicely with an underlying ideal of justice and fairness.

But the hidden secret these authors don’t acknowledge is this beautiful lie: that a flat structure means power structures don’t exist. They always exist! The Iron Law of Oligarchy still holds! Any organization still has to make decisions, and any large organization requires a certain amount of delegation and specialization to deal with these daily decisions. Certain individuals are invested with more power and this inevitably creates a hierarchy of responsibilities. It’s how these individuals are invested with power that has changed, and not necessarily for the better. As the the seminal feminist work Tyranny of Structureleness describes, the replacement of established titles and positions means that informal power cliques dominate, not just on the basis of competence, but on friendships, appearances, and popularity.

“At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom.”

Tyranny of Structurelessness

Daily decisions still need to be made in structureless groups, but the people who make the decisions aren’t officially appointed; they’re the informal leaders that everyone knows to consult on issues like this. An implicit but very real connected group of people steer decision making and resource allocation, regardless of how flat the “official” nature of organization is.

Michael Scott from "The Office" (Source: The Officeisms.com)

Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) from the TV show The Office (this, readers, is an example of “telling” rather than “showing”) | Source: The Officeisms.com

It’s important to be clear that performance, and the interaction with the audience, is the discreet play that goes on day to day. Good actors don’t come out on stage and say, “I am the sexy one; I am the strong one, I am popular.” They show and don’t tell. A good actor uses subtle language and placement to communicate that they, in any scene, are the strong or sexy one. Visualize a scene with a man sitting behind an oak desk and relaxing into a chair, versus a scene where that same man is hunched over, fingers interlaced while he stares into the ground. It’s got a different vibe — and it’s because it conveys different information about the status and state of the character.

[There is] a greater emphasis on the act of acting with authority, so that professional perceptions — the ways that others know someone is powerful — are established.

Ouroboros (Source: Mythologian)

The ancient symbol of the Ouroboros, also known as the snake that eats its own tail | Source: Mythologian

In flat organizations performing the role of a powerful member of an organization, acting in certain ways is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The audience — again, in this case your peers in the corporation — are in the dark about who needs to be part of a meeting/decision/project. Without explicit titles and roles, the way we learn who is in command is based solely on the subtle signals that they send; the minute ways they carry themselves. When this corporate audience views Jane in accounting as acting powerfully in a meeting, relative to Bob from marketing, then the audience updates their own internal org-chart (you know, the one we all carry around in our heads) and promotes Jane relative to Bob.

The act of acting as someone with power in and of itself confers power.

Jeffrey Pfeffer's "Power" (Source: Amazon)

Source: Amazon

Performing as someone with power is all about signals. So what type of performances do corporate audiences recognize as being those of a powerful person? Jeffrey Pfeffer notes in his book Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t that certain themes stick out:

Getting Angry (in the Right Way)

Research indicates people view anger in others as a sign of strength, and as indicative of being a person in authority. In one study, people “rated coworkers who expressed more anger as better potential role models — people from whom they could learn.” Notably it’s the type of anger that involves displays of strength, like sharp words or a raised voice, that attract that respect.

Speaking at a Slower Pace

Speaking at a slow clip, letting silences sit, and making deliberate word choice all indicate a powerful persona. You’re not concerned about losing others attention or being interrupted, because who could possibly do that to you?

Interrupt the Other Person

And conversely interrupting someone conveys an impression of power and importance. It communicates that you’re not afraid to take someone else’s time or position. Does it make you look like a dick? Sure, but a powerful one.

Stand Tall

How you stand conveys a strong message about your social standing — namely that it’s a physical display of internal confidence.

All of these performances have something in common: the internal feel of the act is that it is potentially risky. If you act in this way and you don’t actually have power, then you’re pissing someone off and will get punished. Whether this is some type of evolutionary instinct or something learned in childhood doesn’t really matter, so much as noting that the perception of it by the audience makes it a costly signal — you’d only do it if you had power, ipso facto you must have power.

The audience sees that you have power (because you’re signaling that you do) and update their beliefs to treat you as powerful. The audience promotes the capable performer into the informal elite group, as someone to be looked to for guidance and direction. Of course, it has to be a good performance — any audience can be brutal to a bad actor, and in these structureless groups, failing a performance can lead to a downgrading in responsibility or power by the end of the meeting.

In an Interview

It should be noted that there are clear gender implications in all this acting. Ways of behaving that are traditionally associated with “being male” — or maybe better thought of as traditionally asshole behavior — are often in turn associated with power. In particular, interrupting others and speaking loudly has been a pretty effective way throughout history to secure resources for the group an actor represents. By accruing more resources for the group, it solidifies the impression of being a capable, powerful person. It seems that making these types of male-associated performances matter more than the actual gender of the person making them, though others disagree; so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

This all sounds very cynical, and maybe it is. Acting is lying, after all. But it’s worth noting that none of this is inherently good or bad. It’s recognizing that as more and more “defined” structures are torn down or changed, other ones will sprout up in their place. And in many ways it’s your relationship to the audience, of those around you and their perception of where you fall, that will determine your standing in the new one.


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