Let me explain. One of the more compelling games that came out of Behavior Lab last year was something I call Promotion Dance. This was a game that I dreamt up during brainstorming sessions with the excellent Dave Sals. It grew out of a desire to create games that explained things about workplace dynamics, and also from some agent-based modeling work on age discrimination that I've been doing with Rich Martell, a fascinating and highly astute organizational psychologist I met recently.
To play this game you need a large group. Twenty people or so works well. These people each have one of three roles. CEO (you only have one of these), Team Lead (you need about three or four of these), and Team Members (everyone else). You arrange the people as follows:
Then, once everyone is positioned, you start dancing. The CEO's job is to communicate his dance choices to his team leads. The team leads' job is to communicate the CEO's choices to the teams. And the teams' job is to accurately reflect the dance they're seeing their team lead do. Team members are encouraged at the outset to focus on their team lead, not the CEO.
All that's left is to add the extra twist: that occasionally the facilitator will shout: Promotion! When that happens, the CEO has to choose the team lead he thinks is doing the best job. Then that team lead has to promote the member of their team who they in turn think is doing the best job. The selected team lead becomes the new CEO. The team member becomes the new team lead, and the CEO (this is where it gets unrealistic) fills the slot left by the promoted team member. The game then proceeds as before.
Promotion Dance is fun to play. People generally enjoy the dancing, and the sense of power that comes from being either a team lead or a CEO. However, it's what's revealed when a promotion happens that makes the game fascinating.
The first thing you notice is that without being asked, the CEO generally assumes that the best team lead is the one whose dance is most similar to their own, even though this has never been stated. The next fascinating thing is that the team leads have all been watching the CEO rather than their teams. This means that when one of them is picked, they suddenly remember that their teams exist and choose someone almost at random. What's even more fascinating is that these patterns persist, pretty much unaffected, even after people have started to figure out what's going on.
What do we learn from this?
Plenty. As always, we have to take the findings with a pinch of salt, because this is a game, not a real workplace. However, it's pretty clear that:
- When not given guidance to the contrary, people instinctively measure the quality of a person's work based on the attention they receive from that person, rather than from other measures that would require more work to evaluate. (This is because direct human attention is both rewarding and easy to assess. It fulfills our natural desire to have an effect on the world that is immediate, clear, and effortless to discern.)
- That when there are more than two levels in an organization, that the tension on those in the middle layers will always be resolved by those people directing more of their attention up the hierarchy than down. (This is because those who direct their attention down are less likely to get ahead, and will usually be replaced by those who direct more of their attention up.)
- That people who are below two levels of management must pay very close attention to their boss in order to be noticed, as the time they have to achieve this will be a small fraction of the time that their boss can possibly afford to give while remaining in the game.
This demonstration is simplistic and undoubtedly we could muddy the waters with many different additions to the dynamic. However the point that the game makes when played is extremely clear. Without awareness and care, people automatically construct hierarchies that reward sycophancy. They don't do this because they're bad people, or have selfish personalities, or because their culture is toxic. It's simply the emergent effect of a hierarchical arrangement of people, all of whom want to receive attention.
It would be easy to say at this point that, sure, we know this happens. It's been going on for thousands of years. But that modern organizations use tools like assessment centers and 360 interviews to choose the people to promote. And while that's a great start it misses the core point. And that's that the recommendations for who to assess still come from somewhere, because HR departments can't watch everyone all the time. As we all know, tools for measuring the effectiveness of employees in their current roles won't really help you either, because you're assessing for talent in the position you're about to take your employee out of.
The easy, dangerous lesson we could absorb here is that kissing up to the boss really does help, for solid, testable reasons. The better lesson, I think, is that organizations that want to keep their culture healthy have to take active steps to avoid the promotion-dance-effect.
This starts with the CEO. Rather than looking just at his team leads because that's easy, he needs to be looking at the employees below to see what they're actually doing. However, it doesn't end there. If bottom-line employees want to be taken seriously, they need to make sure they're visible to people higher up the organization than their direct manager, and sharing clear information about their experiences whenever possible.
The right lesson, if you like, is that strong, healthy organizations dance together, rather than in a hierarchy.