What is the power gradient?

The power gradient is the amount of social distance there is between one person and another.

The power gradient is the feeling of “how much more important are people in the next tier in the hierarchy than we are” and “how much more important are we then people below us.”

In Industrial Age organizations (where we conformed to our roles) we wanted a steep power gradient because that allowed us to coerce the team to do what we wanted them to do. They would comply with their jobs. Here’s why power gradient matters. Information and ideas flow inversely proportional to the power gradient. With a steep power gradient, very little information is going to flow up. It’s going to be highly curated, massaged, and will be worded just right. These examples of steep power gradient i.e., my carpet is thicker, my office is bigger, I have a private parking spot, I have a private executive dining room– are Industrial Age vestiges ensuring separation of executives and workers.

With a flatter power gradient, you will get more information and ideas flowing up. You’ll hear more about what the team is trying to do. Now you feel the power gradient toward your boss, but it’s very hard for you to feel it going down. As leaders we need to take actions to flatten the power gradient.

Measurable power gradient indicators:

  • salary or pay rate
  • office size
  • carpet thickness
  • physical separation such as reserved parking spots and private dining rooms
  • access to particular people and inclusion in particular meetings
  • stripes on sleeves
  • seating location (distance from the top boss)
  • number of and attractiveness of assistants (male or female)
  • amount of talk time allocated
  • tolerance of tardiness
  • Share of Voice – How much more someone talks than others in the room, meeting, etc. Share of voice is the proportion of words attributed to each person in a conversation and is an excellent indicator of the power gradient within an organization. If there are four people and each person says exactly 25 percent of the words spoken, you have a perfectly balanced share of voice. If the leader says 100 percent of the words and no one else says anything, that share of voice is completely skewed.

Immeasurable but felt indicators of power gradient:

  • the meeting doesn’t start until the most senior person shows up
  • punishment runs down the power gradient not up
  • who chairs the meeting
  • who sums up the discussion
  • who allocates actions
  • who we look at for reactions

Protocol and training do not remove the power gradient. The steeper the power gradient, the harder it is to tell your boss something they don’t want to hear. Here’s the rule with power gradients: the censoring of information is directly proportionate to the power gradient. Have a steep power gradient and employees will carefully censor their communications to the boss. They will edit out bad news, draft and reword emails, and stay silent when the boss has suggested an idea, whether they think it is a good one or not. They will invoke the be good self.

One workplace where this is most visibly researched is in the cockpit because the crew is recorded. In our new book, Leadership Is Language, we retell the stories and cite several studies of pilot and copilots interactions. Here is a story from a pilot who describes the power gradient as an “invisible wall” and “lack of warmth.” In his blog post from Plane and Pilot Magazine, Dustin Joy describes his personal experience with handling a mistake in the cockpit appropriately named “Crew Members Need To Speak Up In The Cockpit: The most useless warning is one that never gets made.”

Learn more by watching this Nudge – Leadership Nudge® 297 – Flatten the Power Gradient

Download our handout here – HANDOUT Power Gradient



%d bloggers like this: