Informal Hierarchy in 400M and Beyond: A [Rough?] Essay and Analysis from the Heart

Date: August 25th, 2022

Context: An internal document from 400,000,000 that initiated a longer process within 400,000,000 to begin acknowledging and addressing power dynamics within efforts, and in a way that centers both our humanity and democratic process.


Tell ‘em, Uncle Ben. :black_heart:


Hey everyone.

Want to be (more) mindful of everyone’s time and boundaries moving forward, and ensure no one feels socially pressured by my engagement to meet in person beyond what they’re comfortable with, and, in that, I felt like it might be helpful for me to get some thoughts down via text and share some readings that people are (ideally) able to explore asynchronously (on their own time), and maybe with a little bit of skimming and perusing before our next meet-up.

It’s all related to some things that I think are really important for the “success” of 400M (whatever that might mean to you), and come out of private discussions I’ve had with [omitted] and (much more recently) [omitted] . I’ve also spoken with [omitted] about some of this in the past, but the dimensions (and context) of our discussions have been a bit different, as we tend to have a history of relating to organizational contexts in a different way than most (and while I know [omitted] hasn’t been tapped in on post-production work, and that other folks don’t know her as well, I consider her an important part of what we’re trying to do, and someone with a lot of knowledge to share).

I’m not sure I’ll be able to make this particular writing brief, simply because it gets into a very specific (and sensitive) subject that there is simply not a lot of literature on (or helpful resources for). That said, I’ll do my best to be as brief as possible and get to the point without throwing out context that I think is central and important.

Also, a lot of this, I will reiterate in person. Just want something written down for the organizational record, to save time (ultimately), and so folks have something to come back to and discuss in the future. There’s no pressure from my side for anyone to respond directly here. Would just hope folks could find time to explore it all, and really take it in.

If you are put off by the length, feel free to disregard.


Before speaking to anything else, and trying to unpack a bunch of concepts, and without any sort of egotistical posturing (just being real), the first thing I want to say and make clear is:

As of the “co-founding” of 400,000,00 as a cooperative production company and network, I fully recognize and acknowledge that I am in a higher position of power and perceived authority, regardless of what rhetoric I/we might use, or the views I/we express, and regardless of what will be written formally (“on paper”) for 400M as a worker cooperative (as far as our founding documentation, codes of conduct, etc., are concerned). And as someone who stands against all systems of domination and hierarchy itself, this is not a point of pride, but rather something that makes me deeply uncomfortable as a human being. It also hurts me (emotionally and psychologically) to think that I may be bringing others pain, just in my being and relating to everyone (I can’t stress this point enough; I am a very sensitive person).

Excuse my elaboration here, but I want to make it very clear:

I do not find joy or pleasure in being “feared,” or a figure of “intimidation,” even if just at the “intellectual level,” and in any context. I do not feel a need for validation around “power” either. My desire is and has been to experience joy, pleasure, and true autonomy + freedom with others, collaborating through collective labor and struggle with people I love deeply to find those things.

But intention is not the same as impact.

And that is why I feel we need to work together (as a team, and cooperatively) to communicate and unpack with each other what it is that we’re feeling about each other and how we’re relating to each other first. And as someone who is trying to acknowledge these power dynamics, this is my attempt to initiate a broader (ongoing) discussion that is truly democratic from the outset, and that goes beyond some de facto, unspoken “leader” dynamics others might try to lean into.

Part One: Defining Key Terms

I’m just going to directly quote from a brilliant paper (linked again at the bottom) here:


Hierarchy is defined as “an implicit or explicit rank order of individuals or groups with respect to a valued social dimension” (Magee & Galinsky, 2008: 354).

[Formal Hierarchy]

Formal hierarchy - the "explicit” rank order of individuals - delineates the extent to which an organization is characterized by a vertical division of labor, such as between supervisors and subordinates (Bunderson & Boumgarden, 2010). Formal hierarchy also seeks to decompose organizations into specialized tasks that can be more easily managed, via the defining of roles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships (James & Jones, 1976) and the establishing of decision-making authority (Bunderson et al., 2015).

[Informal Hierarchy]

Informal hierarchy is defined as the "unofficial stratification among members of a social system . . . which emerge from social interaction and become persistent over time through repeated social processes” (Diefenbach & Sillince, 2011: 1518-1519). Informal hierarchy is the "implicit” rather than "explicit” rank order of individuals within an organization or group. Such structures are particularly prevalent in contexts rich in cultural traditions (Mair, Marti, & Ventresca, 2012). Informal hierarchy exists everywhere, and often arises spontaneously (Anderson, John, Keltner, & Kring, 2001; Barnard, 1938), for example, as individuals make judgments of others’ competence or power (Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, & Hall, 2005; Magee & Galinsky, 2008).

[More Context]

While formal hierarchy may assign explicit roles and reporting structures to members of an organization (Blau & Scott, 1962), there are often pre-existing sources of informal hierarchy among members that prescribe more implicit, yet potent, distinctions in power and status (He & Huang, 2011; Jung et al., 2017; Lubatkin, Lane, Collin & Very, 2006; Magee & Galinsky, 2008). A plethora of characteristics, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and competence, can shape informal power differences among members of an organization (Anicich et al., 2015; Berger & Zeldich, 1998; Tarakci, Greer, & Groenen, 2016). Such informal hierarchies are often an “unavoidable reality of group life” (Bunderson et al., 2015: 1265). Formal hierarchy, informal hierarchy, and cooperative ownership structures are, at their very essence, institutions, which can - and often do - come with competing prescriptions for how organizational actors should behave (Webb, Tihanyi, Ireland, and Sirmon, 2009). Prior work suggests that while individuals and organizations may be subject to competing institutional forces, such forces do not necessarily have equal influence on subsequent behavior (Batjargal et al., 2013; Greenwood et al., 2011).

We argue that when informal hierarchy is deeply embedded in the culture and social norms of a community, the informal hierarchy is an extremely powerful and persistent institution that can override prescriptions (whether consistent or conflicting) from other institutions through informal mechanisms such as deference and persuasion (Kingston and Caballero, 2009; North, 1990; Williamson, 2000). More specifically, we suggest that when strong informal hierarchies exist within a cooperative, the presence of high-powered members ensures that clarity of roles and responsibilities is maintained, even when confusion between ownership and control structure arises. When disagreements surface from the use of a formal hierarchy in a cooperative ownership structure, an informal hierarchy can help in mitigating potential conflict by clarifying a path forward.

This implies that while both formal and informal hierarchy represent a form of unequal control which is in contrast to the signals of equality from the cooperative organizational form, individuals respond differently to these two different types of hierarchy. Whereas the prescriptions of formal hierarchy are contained within the confines of the cooperative, the authority of members of an informal hierarchy stems from broader institutional prescriptions.

Subordinate members often look to these powerful members for guidance, and evaluate their directions as appropriate (Magee & Galinsky, 2008). Because informal hierarchy relies on pre-established and commonly accepted authority, the guidance of powerful members can help to address conflict by leveraging practices and behaviors that are deemed as legitimate (Ridgeway, Johnson, & Diekema, 1994). Therefore, members are likely to be more satisfied with resolutions suggested by those with high informal power and, in turn, experience less tension and conflict within the cooperative.

Part Two: Recognizing Our “Powers” and What They Mean

It’s been discussed privately between others and myself, and, very recently, I’ve been able to more deeply unpack the dark side and trauma (in myself) that a lot of it stems from, but, given the subject at hand, I felt it might be helpful to just put on “paper” what people have relayed to me over the years about what makes me a “powerful” person to them in different contexts.

I really, really hope this doesn’t come across as masturbatory to you all. On the contrary, it is a deeply uncomfortable, humbling, and vulnerable exercise for me in trying to note and recognize what goes largely “unspoken” for many in my life, or around me, and who might fear confronting me about certain things directly.

Furthermore, I think this exercise should be extended out to [omitted] and [omitted] in particular as well, and for reasons I will explain in the next part.

So, here are some things that have been expressed to me directly by different people over the years, and some things that I think are said indirectly; beneath each entry, I’ve dropped key words that describe what I interpret them to mean as it relates to my own “powers,” and the unintended dynamics (or “consequences”) of these powers given the complexities of our conditioning as human beings raised under competitive, exploitative, and deeply hierarchical systems:

  • “I feel like you just know a lot / are very smart” (on the other side of this is “you think you know everything”).
    = Knowledge
    Can make people feel almost too intimidated to speak their mind or share ideas. Can also make people feel like they’re not good enough to have input or say on something.

  • “It feels like you’re always right” (on the other side of this is “you always think you’re right”).
    = Knowledge
    Can make people feel like they have to prove something or, in the worst cases, get over on you to score “social points” in group settings, just to prove their own worth or validity to others within an organizational context. (“If I’m right, and they’re wrong, even just this one time, maybe they and others will see that I ‘deserve’ to be here.”)

  • “You know / have relationships with a lot of [influential/powerful] people.”
    = Relationships/Connections
    Can make people feel a variety of things, one of them being that they are potentially “disposable,” or even a “tool” being “used” for something that ultimately doesn’t center their humanity. (“If they know all of these powerful people, then who am I to them? And what happens if I ‘fuck up’? Am I just replaced?”) Can also make people feel alienated if they aren’t being introduced into certain social dynamics, and like “access” is being withheld as something they have to “strive for” or “earn” through their standing within an organization.

  • “You know how to do a lot of things.”
    = Skills + Knowledge
    On top of making some people feel less “capable,” can also stir negative feelings around “productivity” in others, even if just at the personal level. (“What am I really accomplishing/doing with my life? Am I really doing enough?”)

  • Comments on being “hardcore” or “militant” (which I interpret as admiration for some sort of perceived “battle-hardened” and even “calloused” spirit; “ready for war”).
    = Experience + Knowledge
    Similar to points mentioned above, can make people feel like they need to expose themselves to toxic “dynamics” in order to “grow,” let alone be at someone’s “level.” Can lead to general fear tied to a sense that the symptoms of a “war” someone is “waging” at an individual level (not so much the “macro,” systems change thing here) have to be taken on as well in order for your involvement in anything to be “legitimized” to the fullest extent. Can be intimidating in the sense that you feel someone is “multiple steps ahead” and prepared to “neutralize” you as “an enemy,” even if just “socially,” which stokes pressures to want to be “on their good side” at all times (not “fuck up,” and to “perform”).

  • “You pay attention to detail” and/or “You’re a perfectionist” (related to “I feel judged by you,” in my assessment).
    = Attentiveness + Sensitivity(?)
    Probably doesn’t need much elaboration. It doesn’t feel good feeling like your every move is being scrutinized, criticized, and evaluated by someone (even, and especially, if they are critical of themselves too), particularly if they’re someone whose opinion you respect very deeply. What is a light “comment” or “critique” for someone with this “power” can carry the heaviest sting, even if what’s being said isn’t “technically” “mean” or “wrong.”

  • “You’re a workhorse/workaholic.”
    = “Work Ethic” + Reliability
    Can make others around you feel like they constantly need to “step up” for “performance,” even when personal boundaries and comfortability are being violated in the process. While people almost always appreciate a hard “worker” in any context, and will celebrate the fruits they reap for a collective, in a cooperative context, it can lead everyone to feel like they’re constantly “competing” to prove their “commitment” to a project against expectations, seemingly to no end.

There could be more things people have said or brought to me, but for the sake of this “exercise” (and brevity), I feel like these things are enough to strike at some core tensions, and are not very “surprising” at the end of the day: these are “traits” people typically associate with others holding higher perceived authority (formal or informal) within different organizational contexts, and some of the social dynamics I’ve seen associated with them in my few years of doing “organizational” work of different sorts.

An authoritarian might frame these traits as the traits of a “natural-born leader,” shrug their shoulders, and say “it can’t be helped,” but we’re trying to get away from “leaders,” and the social pressures (implicit or explicit, and on all of us, including me) that can come from those perceived to be of a “higher authority.” We’re trying to get away from the seeds of the domination and manipulation that fucked all of us up to begin with…

So, to me, part of the focus has to be around what we can and should do in both our formal labor and decision-making processes, as well as human-to-human, trust-building practices, to get to a place where we’re:

  1. Addressing the “equality of unequals” (recognizing that we all have different “powers,” capacities, “gifts,” skills, wants, needs, and more that we can work together to address).

  2. Cultivating what some in co-op spaces call “collective psychological ownership,” or “CPO” for short (meaning, not just $$$ shit, or “ownership” in a legal, proprietary sense: a true sense in everyone that what they are a part of is something they meaningfully shape, control, and add value to).

  3. Identifying our particular social and organizational “problem areas” that tend to re-emerge whenever we get together to try and do something “differently” around labor, and nipping them in the bud before “bad habits” develop, and calcify into full-blown, toxic, hierarchical cancers.

I don’t have all of the answers (nor do others occupying these spaces), but I do think it starts with this right here.

Transparency and clarity around our feelings and what’s actually going down (socially), communicating (regularly), acknowledging the power dynamics (present and emerging), and harnessing collective intelligence to develop rituals/practices and social/organizational systems tailored to our collective desires and needs.

An addendum to this section I’d like to add is a 1974 quote from feminist Anarchist Cathy Levine’s The Tyranny of Tyranny (a response to The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Feeman), as it speaks to aforementioned personal “trauma,” and the “dark side” of what shaped some of my “powers” listed above (and which I will elaborate on in person):

Despite our best efforts to disavow and disassociate ourselves from the male Left, we have, nonetheless, had our energy. Men tend to organise the way they fuck — one big rush and then that “wham, slam, thank you maam”, as it were. Women should be building our movement the way we make love — gradually, with sustained involvement, limitless endurance — and of course, multiple orgasms. Instead of getting discouraged and isolated now, we should be in our small groups — discussing, planning, creating and making trouble. We should always be making trouble for patriarchy and always supporting women — we should always be actively engaging in and creating feminist activity, because we all thrive on it; in the absence of feminist activity, women take to tranquilizers, go insane and commit suicide.

The other extreme from inactivity, which seems to plague politically active people, is over-involvement, which led, in the late ’60s, to a generation of burnt-out radicals. A feminist friend once commented that, to her, “being in the women’s movement” meant spending approximately 25% of her time engaging in group activities and 75% of her time developing herself. This is a real, important time allocation for ‘movement’ women to think about. The male movement taught us that ‘movement’ people are supposed to devote 24 hours a day to the Cause, which is consistent with female socialisation towards self-sacrifice. Whatever the source of our selflessness, however, we tend to plunge ourselves head-first into organisational activities, neglecting personal development, until one day we find we do not know what we are doing and for whose benefit, and we hate ourselves as much as before the movement. (Male over-involvement, on the other hand, obviously unrelated to any sex-linked trait of self-sacrifice, does however smell strongly of the Protestant/Jewish, work/achievement ethic, and even more flagrantly, of the rational, cool, unemotional facade with which machismo suppresses male feelings.)

Part Three: The “Founders” Dilemma

I mentioned [omitted] in the previous part about recognizing our “powers” because the “power dynamic” and what I would call both social and psychological “imbalances” that can emerge through informal hierarchies have mostly been discussed (together and separately) with relation to myself and them (together and separately). And while I’m happy about (and, frankly, proud and deeply moved by) our ability to communicate and “struggle” with each other as a “[omitted],” the [omitted] of us are also aware (and sensitive to) an informal (and unspoken) social (and psychological) hierarchy between us (with our own unique bonds), and everyone else within this emerging cooperative effort…

The “informal hierarchy” can extend beyond 400M as an entity too. How do we relate to people doing “contracted” labor or “gigs” for us? How do they feel about working with/for us?

How does the broader community that shapes around what we’re doing relate to those on the “inside” of the operations, and how do we make them feel?

Circling back to the more immediate and close, though: I think it is well known and understood in our networks that “the founders” and “the faces” of many impactful organizational efforts in this world (for better or for worse, but mostly “for worse”) are currently entrenched in wider, corporate “leadership” or “boss” cultures that hardly go unchallenged under our present systems (for obvious reasons). There are entire consulting firms and “workplace morale” training businesses designed around trying to help “bosses” “relate” to their “workers” “better” within traditionally capitalist firms, but it goes without saying that these efforts are ultimately fruitless, not only because of how these “businesses” are structured, but because of how they merely reinforce all of the rigid social hierarchies (and pressures) that are already present as well. At best, these kinds of efforts are about keeping up an illusion that “your boss is your friend.”

Given all of this, and “what we’re used to” in society at large, I think we really need to “break the ice” in acknowledging this emerging dynamic, how it has made folks feel (assuming folks are indeed feeling something on this), and discuss the practices we wish to build on (like hanging out with each other to do dumb shit more, getting closer with each other, or rotating more roles, for example) to address it.

Part Four: Social War Games

Under capitalism, we are violently coerced into having to navigate competitive social systems of domination with a scarcity, survival mindset instead of trust.

How do we (through 400M) cultivate the deep human trust necessary to get that “logic” out of our heads “in here,” while we have to struggle by this very same logic “out there” just to survive? And without our efforts becoming too insular?

How do we actually make 400M a “safe space” in our very own heads and psyches, taking all of these dynamics of power into account?

And how can we get over our own respective insecurities, baggage, traumas, and more in moving on this trust with our larger goals in mind, and in bringing new people onto the team as well?

Can 400M be liberating for us beyond the material ($$$)? Can we find the love, encouragement, and joy we’re not getting “out there” in here, even in doing the “work” to “generate resources” and “make a living”?

These are just some core questions I carry with me in response to what I feel are toxic mindsets humans carry with them from the broader society into what are supposed to be spaces for “change,” wittingly and unwittingly.

And I at least want to set the tone from my side that I am not rocking with that scarcity-informed, “social war games” energy in here (feeling the need to socially “strategize” to “survive” amongst people who are supposed to be friends), and want to sweep any “eggshells” we might still be walking on out of the room (with you all, together).

I want this to be our “home.” Where we’re at peace with ourselves and each other, even in the chaos, commotion, and challenges this greater world (and “entertainment”) will bring to us.

I want us to remove whatever “doubt” and “paranoia” might still be left here.

I just think we have to work together and communicate with each other much more clearly and directly in order for us to actually do this together.


I am of the thinking that “authority” itself cannot be escaped, and that the struggle against “authoritarianism” is partially about what we do with the “authority” that we do have in group and/or community settings.

And I also think it is clear that with informal hierarchies and power dynamics present, beyond whatever protocols and rituals people might establish, those with more power are undoubtedly going to set an impactful tone, even if just in their mere being and energy (this might not be “fair,” but it simply is). It can be something all-consuming and infectious for others, especially when you are someone people are looking to for guidance.

So, while I do think a major part of “what we do” with “authority” in our context is going to come down to how we communicate with each other, the “practices” and even “rituals” we establish between each other to keep each other feeling grounded and at peace, and the vulnerability and accountability we have with one another as things continue to develop (into something that is hopefully much, much bigger than ourselves)…

I think (as is made clear by the quote from Cathy Levine above) that we all have deep, ongoing personal work (and growing) to do internally (inside) as we “build,” so that we can come into better ways of “being” with each other (outside), and organically cultivate a genuine (not performative) “energy” of nurturing and nourishment.

I don’t think some of these “power dynamics” can ultimately be addressed (adequately) without a commitment from each of us to doing better ourselves.

And guess what?

We’re humans. It takes time. And patience. And we learn things in different ways. Internalize “lessons” at different stages, and in different forms.

I believe we’re all here because we’ve been deeply hurt and fucked up in some way, shape, or form.

With that comes the beauty of a collective of people coming together to fight and struggle for a better future that goes beyond themselves as individuals, and proactively includes others.

But it also means “baggage” (for lack of a better word). And though I’ve never claimed to be above this, I need to make it clear (from the heart) that I know I’m not above this, and have been doing the (long and hard) work of trying to unpack it, not only in service to you all and many others, but myself (and my own peace/wellbeing) as well.

Really love and appreciate y’all for being here and seeing the importance of collective struggle in individual struggle (within the self), and vice versa. I only feel more and more lucky to have you, and shed tears of joy and appreciation for the grace and learning experiences I’m able to find in/with you (I know my relationship is more fresh with some of you, and so we haven’t “gone there” yet, but the appreciation I feel for you all and your time and presence is there nevertheless).

Below are some studies and texts that provide more context for much of what I’ve described here. Most are not that long, but I’m also a “reader,” so I’m maybe not the best to judge that lol

If folks have any other suggestions or ideas regarding texts relevant to all of us, please let me know?


The Tyranny of Tyranny

How Formal and Informal Hierarchies Shape Conflict within Cooperatives: A Field Experiment in Ghana

Dispute Resolution in a Worker Cooperative: Formal Procedures and Procedural Justice

:muscle:t4::triumph: Uncle Ben Lives :muscle:t4::triumph:

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