Social Power: Root Cause of Injustice on the Streets and in the Office

Protest march sillhouetteAlthough I already planned on linking my earlier posts on social power to bias in the workplace, events in the streets reinforce the need. I believe the belated global discussion around racism overlooks an underlying factor that must be addressed if we are ever going to gain the moral, social, and financial benefits of truly equal treatment for all. That same factor also explains a large portion of mismanagement of companies and abuse of workers.

UCLA Distinguished Professor of Sociology Michael Mann took a three-volume walk through world history to analyze how social power develops and is wielded across cultures.[1] His definition helps explain inherent bias via the group aspect. He says “power is the ability to pursue and attain goals through mastery of one’s environment.” Social power has two components, he says:

  • Individual power, which is “mastery exercised over other people.”
  • Collective power, “whereby persons in cooperation can enhance their joint power over third parties or over nature.”

He writes that studies have proven most people try to gain more power, but not in the social power sense of  “control over others.” Rather it is for personal power, meaning “the capacity to control one’s own outcomes and not to be controlled by others. In other words, if individuals want power, it is mostly… to be able to act in agreement with their preferences and desires and not to be obliged to adjust their behaviors to others and/or to social norms.” Social power is a means to doing whatever we want to do.

High-power individuals within a group have even more personal power if their group is dominant. My advantages as a white male in the U.S. come despite my having zero social power among other white males. I’m better off by an accident of birth, as is everyone in that group, without fame or even a conventional job. A white male with fame or a high-power job is just that much better off, and started out with a leg up to get there. Thus it is to his advantage to keep our group in power.

One tool is bias against less-powerful groups. Most people aren’t even aware they are wielding that tool. To recap from earlier posts, people who have more social power tend to make more assumptions about other groups. Scientists call this out-group homogeneity bias, the tendency to think people in other groups are more alike than those in one’s own group, necessary for stereotyping. It appears from the data that this bias is stronger in dominant group members—regardless of that group’s description. That is, yes, white males in America are guilty of it, but in other settings other groups are dominant, and they exhibit the same biased behaviors against less-powerful groups of different descriptions.

In a series of three studies outside of America, scientists hid the fact they were testing inherent bias. They found people manipulated briefly into feeling more power had more “negative evaluations of stigmatized groups” and more negative emotional reactions to members of those groups. “Furthermore, these detrimental effects of power were found across different target groups (Blacks and Arabs), and across different (tested) countries (Italy and Spain)…” Yet people with more power didn’t think they were more biased.[2] This has a familiar ring in 2020 America.

Other examples include:

  • A sample of Dutch men had either a placebo or oxytocin, a hormone triggered by social power, sprayed into their nostrils. The oxytocin group tended to favor people with Dutch names, value those people’s lives more, and be more willing to punish other teams if that seemed the most effective way to protect their own.[3]
  • In a laboratory game in which people designated what behaviors another person would have to perform, people made to feel more powerful required more demeaning behaviors than those with low power (like “say ‘I am filthy’ 5 times” or “bark like a dog”). This was true of “high power” people in various demographics.[4]

Another complication in the fight against out-group mistreatment is that, as Mann wrote, “Societies are constituted of multiple overlapping and intersecting… networks of power.” This helps explain one of the vexing twists in the over-policing of African-Americans, the fact that some African-American police officers did not speak out publicly against it. Another minority, an Asian-American policeman, surely a victim of bias out of uniform, was present at the murder of George Floyd.

To illustrate, consider a workplace hierarchy, where Mann started out (he did his Oxford dissertation research in the business world). Say you are a white male middle manager in the Sales Department hoping to move up someday. You are part of at least three networks: “Middle Managers,” “Sales People,” and “White Males,” and want to become part of “Top Executives.” What if the Sales Department adopts a strategy you and its other managers, mostly white males, consider ethical, but the new Chief Diversity Officer says is biased? The white male CEO says he agrees with the CDO, but you realize his previous decisions don’t reflect that. Which network do you support?

Overlapping networks partially explain why a black police officer would be reluctant to report bad activities by white colleagues, and why protestors might hesitate to stop the few violent ones (besides the fear factor in each case). On the job, it helps explain the terrible position of middle managers. It’s no wonder that in every company I’ve helped, people in those positions demanded results they would have correctly called “impossible” when they were team leaders. Their current and desired networks were supplying pressures they didn’t experience before.

Conflicting networks also partially explain why hiring a black police chief or CEO, something that must happen more often to create equity, is insufficient to change an organization’s culture. As discussed often in this blog, a culture must overcome a huge array of forces to change, requiring not only the right leaders but the right approaches. These forces include the many networks in the organization.

When we whites ignore evidence-backed complaints about mistreatment of other groups in this country for 400 years, we should not be surprised when those groups adopt more forceful approaches. I applaud them, and hope progressive middle managers and their distressed employees will take note.


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[1] Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power: A History of Power From the Beginning to AD 1760, Vol. 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] Ana Guinote, Guillermo B. Willis, and Cristiana Martellotta, ‘Social Power Increases Implicit Prejudice’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46.2 (2010), 299–307 <>.

[3] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2012).

[4] Nathanael J. Fast, Nir Halevy, and Adam D. Galinsky, ‘The Destructive Nature of Power without Status’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48.1 (2012), 391–94 <>.

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