In every social setting there are implicit hierarchical differences between people. These differences are created by society and the values attributed to social status, education, origin, language etc. In part, they can also be ascribed to different competences or characteristics people have, such as social intelligence, persuasiveness, empathy, intuition, humour, dedication etc.
In organisations such hierarchical differences are only in part created by formal organisational structures. People might also occupy a certain position or so-called rank according to informal power they hold, for instance, due to the length of time they have been part of the organisation, or being trusted by certain people or for having specific knowledge.
Being able to raise the topic of informal power, differences in rank and access to decision-making is a key issue when dealing with diversity, inclusion and racism in organisations. Higher ranks (implicit and explicit ones) usually come with certain privileges, access to resources or overall influence in decision- making.
The rank somebody holds is always in relation to others and can change over time and in different situations. When introducing the topic of informal power and influence as part of a change process, you can use this powerful and playful method to let people feel what is meant by power differences, occupying different ranks and to being on different steps on the ladder of hierarchy.
Goal/Learning Objective/Expected Output
Sensitising participants to the difficult topic of power relations and differences in rank in organisations, making it accessible and serving as an ‘icebreaker’ to then start a conversation about it.
Way/level of dealing with subject
Facilitating personal experience, triggering reflection, sensitisation towards abstract concepts.
Application in moderation cycle
Divergence to emergence
8 to 20 people
Level of difficulty
The facilitation of the rank exercise to trigger reflection about power relations is not very complex and can be done by internal facilitators. However, if this exercise is used as an opener to start conversations about access to decision-making and formal and informal power relations then this needs an experienced external facilitator who has the trust of the team and is respected by executive members of the organisation.
In the latter case, this exercise has the potential to unlock strong emotional responses resulting from experiences of inequality or powerlessness. The facilitator needs to be prepared to deal with such responses.
- A deck of cards, the number of cards selected depending on the number of participants
- Rubber bands that fit around the head (can be made out of sewing rubber band that is soft on the skin)
Theoretical input on ranks:
- Mindell, Arnold, Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Work Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity, Deep Democracy Exchange: 2014.
Preparation: You will need a regular card deck (ideally from 2 to ace, without duplicates – which group is not bigger than 14 people) and make sure everyone knows and has the same understanding of the hierarchical order of the cards, including the different colours. Choose the number of cards according to the number of participants. Include also one joker into the card set which implies that this person operates outside of the hierarchical system.
Let everyone pick a card from the deck, with the cards face down so no one is allowed to know his or her own card. Everyone has to attach the card to their own forehead using rubber bands, so that the others can see the card and only the carrier doesn’t know what is on it. When everyone has a card attached, they start moving around the room and look at each other’s cards without speaking. The facilitator instructs the group to non-verbally interact in order to find out their own rank relative to the others.
Tell the group that they have to form a ranking line where everyone has to position himself or herself according to where they believe they are in the card game hierarchy. Still, people are not allowed to talk or indicate to others where they should stand. Once everyone is sure about their position, everyone can take off their card and look at it.
Options for modification
This exercise strongly sensitises participants to the topic of ranks. A possible next step is to then turn the attention towards the participants’ own organisation and reflect on how ranks are dealt with there.
Relevant questions would be:
How do I experience different ranks in my organisation?
How do I perceive my own rank in the organisation?
How do I feel about it and is there anything I would like to change?
These questions could ideally be explored in pairs using a ‘deep listening’ approach: both group members get a defined amount of time to speak (usually between 5 and 8 minutes) while the other person is only listening. At the end, the listener can give feedback or mirror back what he or she heard and understood. Then roles are exchanged. As a final step, the pairs should be invited to share in the plenary some of their insights or personal evaluations of this reflection and dialogue.
The debrief to this exercise – which should take place before the partner dialogue described under ‘options for modification’ – can take quite some time, since there are many power-related issues in an organisation. The facilitator uses prompting questions and ensures a lively discussion within the group.
To start with, the initial questions should still be quite general, such as:
How did it feel doing this exercise?
How did you find out about your own rank; what were the signals you noticed?
Secondly, move on to more specific questions:
How did it feel to be in higher ranks, how in lower?
It’s always interesting to ask the person with the lowest rank what his/her experience was, how she/he perceived the reactions of the others, how it felt. Then ask those in the middle and higher positions. It is also interesting to explore the role of the joker: what was he/she able to do? How did it feel, what potential does this role have?
Generally, applying these insights to their own organisation comes quite naturally; for instance, when people draw a link to a person they have noticed operating outside of existing hierarchies as if s/he were the joker.
Part of the debriefing should also be to give a bit of theoretical background about ranks (e.g. using the additional resources above), in particular emphasising that ranks are neither good or bad, and that they are always at play, especially in organisations that claim to have no hierarchies.
Second, it’s usually much easier to be aware of low rank positions, but it’s particularly important to be aware of a high rank position in order to use the attached power and influence wisely and responsibly. Power abuse happens when people are unaware of the power and the responsibilities attached to their high rank position.