Skip to content

group dynamics

November 12, 2011

I’ve been a member of lots of groups. Most of those experiences were unpleasant. And yet I kept thinking, “the problem this time was this particular leader. Next time I’ll vet the leader better, and all will be well.” And I kept joining groups.

I’ve also been reading a lot about social networks. And the last such book, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, finally provided me with enough information to figure out what the real problem is, and has always been.

The most useful part of playing Dungeons & Dragons 30 years ago, for me, was the concept of alignments. I like to think of myself as Chaotic Good, and probably I achieve that occasionally; I’m probably more usually Chaotic Neutral. My family is mostly Lawful, although I think I have a cousin or two who’s a fellow Chaotic.

Lawful people not only prefer structure and orderliness and everyone knowing their place, they seem to actually need it. So wherever they go, they create structures that they populate.

Social networks have an inherent structure that fits very well with Lawful ideas of appropriateness. At the center of a social network, there is one or a few highly connected people, that act as a hub. There are a lot of people, farther out, that have a medium level of connections. And at the fringes, there is the greatest number of people, who each have a very small number of connections within that network. (Although people at the fringes can also act as bridges between different networks. So that their overall number of connections could be medium, or infrequently, even high numbers.) Graphing this shape gives you what is known as a power law distribution.

A power law distribution looks a lot like a leader and hir inner circle at the upper left, outer circle followers in the middle, and people who have a lot of other interests at the bottom right.

Apparently any organized group anywhere follows this same distribution.

In various groups, over the course of my life, I believe I’ve occupied all the spots, except leader: I’ve definitely been inner circle, and outer circle, but mostly I’ve been at the fringes, and usually a bridge to other groups.

People within the hub have the highest status, and enjoy the most perks, but what holds them in place is a force known as homophily. These people love being part of a homogenous group. They think the same, they value the same things. They create the climate of their network in their own image. Conformity is a virtue. So someone who has a lot of unusual ideas, who wants to mix things up to see what happens, and who genuinely likes talking to anybody because they might learn something, is never going to “fit in”. The only way such a person can seem to fit in to a hub is to either hide huge chunks of their personality; or actually try to change their personality. And of course, this person can’t spend any time doing any of the things they really like and/or are really good at, because all of those things undermine group cohesion, and appear to challenge the leader’s authority.

In the usual way of things, if someone is challenging the leader’s authority, the challenger wants to depose the leader, and assume command in their own right. So leaders who want to stay leaders tend to be pretty vigilant about looking for followers who are trying to foment revolution, so they can discredit them or drive them away.

Whenever I’ve been anywhere but at the fringes, the actual structure of the organization requires me to pretend to be all sorts of things that are not just unhealthy for me, but actively toxic. Perks and status are nice but not enough to justify the high price I’m paying for them. Because it’s not enough for me to wear a mask all the time; the climate of conformity means that I have to disavow anybody else like me. I’m supposed to avoid the people whose company I would prefer the most, because they might be plotting something, or because they’re going to get kicked out.

All that is bad enough. Worse yet, I’m not free to move around. Imagine an organization as a vertebrate organism. Say the hub people are the heart and its surrounding tissues. Mid-level people are lungs, liver, kidneys, intestines, etc. I was going to say fringers are the blood, meaning they can go anywhere, but that’s not quite right. What I want to convey is, fringers can come and go, and yet the body persists. Fringers can visit any organ, can perform any function, or can just hang around trying to decide if they want to do anything. They aren’t part of the structure itself.

Fringers aren’t required to be at every meeting, you won’t find us performing maintenance (too big a time commitment, and too confining), and we are going to resist having regular duties. We need to introduce and discuss interesting ideas we’ve run across. We need to experiment constantly. We will insist on doing things our own way.

Fringers don’t follow, and we don’t lead; we create a third way. But in my experience, even the idea that there is a third way is threatening to people who like groups, especially leaders. They’ll keep trying to persuade me that I would be much happier being a follower, their follower.

I cannot be happy as a follower, no matter who the leader is.

Humans are social, and we want to belong. I can belong to other people through friendship or love, or coming together with shared interests, but I’ve never yet found an organized group to belong to that doesn’t insist I have to become someone else to truly fit in. And that’s a price I won’t pay.

Structure and expectations and traditions box me in. I feel like a rabbit in a snare, trying to chew my own leg off to escape. I’m Chaotic — I have to go my own way.

I wonder if there is an unorganized blob of fellow Chaotics out there somewhere that I could (not join but) hang out with…


4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2011 06:56

    As always, your investigation is thought-provoking! To add a little contrast, though, I am aware of organizations – even hierarchical ones – that do actually value, foster, and promote individuals who aren’t homogenous. We can debate how much those individuals have to suppress or subjugate certain parts of themselves in different settings, but it is possible both in theory and in at least limited practice for organizations to explicitly value those who are different.

    I’m also interested in how you equate “hubs” with “leaders.” Do you mean that hubs always take on the role of leadership, or are you specifically interested in authoritarian structures rather than flatter networks?

    • November 13, 2011 11:46

      Hi Literata, You’ve pointed out an area where what I wrote might have been confusing. People in organizations, including leaders, certainly do “value, foster, and promote individuals who aren’t homogenous” — you are one of those people! The problem for me lies in a different area.

      My go-to reference on organizational dynamics is Men and Women of the Corporation by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, originally written in the 1970s, but reissued in 1993. An organization has 2 parts: the skeleton or scaffolding of infrastructure, which is permanent; and the people who populate the interior, who come and go. The infrastructure itself constrains the behavior of people within it, by way of “a structure of opportunity; power; and relative numbers”. The most enlightened boss in the world (and I have had a couple) is still in charge of everyone else, with the means to direct everyone else’s efforts.

      ‘Authoritarian’ structures are different in degree not kind. There don’t seem to be ‘flat’ networks, whatever their leaders intend. All the books I’ve read on social networks lately say the same thing: The power law distribution governs these arrangements, so that there is always at least one person in a hub (who I called the leader), a mass of people in the middle, and a lot of people at the fringes.

      The only way I see around these issues is to be a DISorganized group. If there is a hierarchy, then someone is calling the shots. When there’s no hierarchy, everyone has an equal say, and no one outranks anyone else. No one can insist upon certain actions. It can be chaotic, with diffused efforts accomplishing not a whole lot. But then again, I’m process oriented; I care much less for results.

      • November 13, 2011 14:49

        I don’t believe that there are truly flat networks either, but I can think of networks of people I’ve known where it would be completely inappropriate to name the hubs the “leaders.” Again, that was not an organization, it was just a relatively identifiable group of people who spent time together voluntarily. It had basically no infrastructure. While I am not hesitant to say that different people had different power arrangements within that group, it was not necessarily the people with the most connections who had the most power – not by a long shot.

        I’ll read the article on homophily later, but my point as far as hierarchical structures goes is that it’s not always homophily that gets people advanced. I’ll see if that’s different after I read the article and get a better handle on how people are using it as a technical term.

        But tentatively, because of those two things, I think your easy identification of hierarchy with networks is potentially problematic; the vast majority of the time it will be mostly true, but I’d hate to see you miss out on a good (dis)organization or network because you had preconceptions about the faults of such.

      • November 13, 2011 18:48

        I have had good experiences in groups. I’m still trying to figure out what those groups had in common, but also what separates them from all the groups that I’ve had less-pleasant or uncomfortable experiences with.

        I’m trying out mental models, so my thinking on these topics will evolve over time. However, I’m not biased against groups. I want to find a group situation that I enjoy. And more than that, I want to discover what traits or conditions produce a successful-for-Laiima group, so I can stop pursuing all the other kinds.

        One of the books I read on social networks, Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, asserts that “your genes affect not just how many friends you have but also if you are located in the center or at the periphery of the network.” The property involved is transitivity, and they say it is significantly heritable, ~47%. People with high transitivity are deeply embedded in a single group; people with low, are connected to people from several different groups who don’t know each other (pp. 228-233). The authors also suggest that the more closely a person is connected to a hub, the better the social treatment they’re likely to get from everyone else in the network (p. 299). So I guess everyone wants to be close to the center, for lots of reasons, but it’s not really a realistic option for everybody.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: