Power dynamics between people in EA

post by Julia_Wise · 2022-06-01T20:50:21.631Z · EA · GW · 14 comments

Contents

  EA is complicated
  Some factors in how people influence each other
      Funding
      In organizations
      Network
      Gatekeeping
      Age 
      History
      Demographics and culture
  How this affects things
      Relationships that feel equal aren’t always equal
      It’s harder for junior people to give their real opinion
      It’s harder for junior people to establish boundaries
      Social situations are also assessments
  Shifting sands
  Romantic relationships
    Upsides of relationships within EA
    Complications
    Risks of dating across power levels
    Inside and outside view
    Poly relationships
    Mitigation steps
  This stuff is weird and hard, and I’m available to try to help
None
14 comments

I work at CEA as a community liaison / contact person for the community [EA · GW].

In any field, including EA, power differences affect how people interact. 

Sometimes power differences are obvious, like between a manager and their report or a grantmaker and grantee. Organizations should have policies around some things here, like on conflicts of interest within an organization.

But there are a bunch of smaller power differences that subtly affect a lot of interactions. Formal policies would be too heavy-handed here, but we can all adjust how we handle these situations. 

This post is meant for people who have relatively more power within EA — though who that is changes with the circumstances!

EA is complicated

EA is both a social community and a professional field. In the words of one HR person at an EA organization about handling this dynamic, “Boy, is it complicated and strange.”

For many of us who work in EA, it will be well worth it to have friendships, housemates, and/or partners within the community, not just our professional contacts. But that also introduces more complexity, and we should expect to need to tread carefully.

Some factors in how people influence each other

Funding

In organizations

If you work at or are on the board of an EA organization, you can affect the outcome of other people’s interactions with the organization. This affects hiring, grantmaking, etc even if you aren’t directly involved in hiring or funding. Your impression of a colleague can matter for promotion and other decisions, even if you’re not directly managing them.

Network

Who you can introduce people to, who you’re friends with, etc. 

Gatekeeping

Ability to get people in or keep them out of events, retreats, office spaces, parties, etc.

Age 

This won’t be true of everyone, but my impression is that people under about 25 often weigh others’ opinions more heavily and have a harder time expressing clearly when they’re uncomfortable with something. 

History

If they looked up to you when they were first getting involved in EA, you may still have a kind of influence over them even if you’re now peers in other ways.

Demographics and culture

Some of this is big obvious categories like race and gender, but some is subtler things like accent, sharing more background knowledge with the cool kids, etc. People from cultures with higher power distance may be more reluctant to question authority figures. 

How this affects things

Relationships that feel equal aren’t always equal

If I ask a community member for a favor, I don’t feel like I’m pulling rank or anything. But because of various advantages I have over them, their perception of the interaction will probably be slanted by those things. So maybe they’ll go along with things that are more costly for them than I intended.

Possible steps: Ask fewer favors from people who might feel uncomfortable refusing. Try to make clear when things are truly optional, and provide easy ways to decline.

 

It’s harder for junior people to give their real opinion

Opinions that junior people express will often be shaped (maybe unintentionally and unknowingly) by what they perceive senior people’s opinions to be or what they think the senior people want to hear. 

Possible steps: 

It’s harder for junior people to establish boundaries

A senior EA I know notes that she’s effusive with hugs at work. She realized after a long time that one of the junior staff she was working with prefers less physical contact than most people, and that she was probably making this person uncomfortable by offering hugs that they didn’t feel comfortable turning down.
 

Social situations are also assessments

When junior people are in the same space with senior people, they often correctly feel that they’re being evaluated as potential future grantees or hires. Every lunch feels a bit like a job interview. The good aspect of this is that they would probably like to have a foot in the door, but the bad aspect is that it can make time in EA spaces pretty anxious because even minor social interactions feel high-stakes.

The flip side is that some junior EAs don’t realize this is happening.

People might need different nudges depending on where they are: people who feel like they’re being trialed might benefit from more casual interactions and talking about non-work topics. People who don’t realize they’re making an impression that affects them professionally might benefit from a heads-up about this.

Shifting sands

Although I’ve written about “junior” and “senior” people, there often isn’t a clear hierarchy between two people. One may have more influence via their job, another via their network or reputation in the community, or via their ability to fund projects. At times each of them may feel less advantaged than the other.

Over time, power levels can shift. For example, I know a pair of EAs where each of them has hired the other.

People who start out feeling like peers can end up on different levels. I know two EAs who worked at the same organization and considered hooking up casually, but decided not to. Later the organization shifted so that one of them was managing the other, and they were relieved that they’d decided to keep things simpler. Even if you never work at the same organization, one of you may end up as an advisor, board member, or grantmaker to the place where the other works.

Romantic relationships

I’m including the full range from hookups to casual dating to long-term relationships. A lot of this is relevant both during the relationship and after it ends.

For dating in the same organization or where there is a grantmaker/grantee relationship, there should be an organizational policy. But there will also be situations where no formal policy applies, for example with people from different organizations.

Upsides of relationships within EA

A lot of us really value having a partner who’s also involved in EA!

Complications

Risks of dating across power levels

One standard concern is that resources will be misallocated or people inappropriately elevated due to personal relationships. Maybe a junior person dating a senior person gets more opportunities than they actually should, and that takes away resources from places they’d be better spent.

But it can also have downsides for the junior person:

There are also risks to the more senior person, for example:

Inside and outside view

Some people have an inside view that dating across power levels won’t be a problem for them. They believe they’ll be responsible about it, and it won’t affect work. Some people are more or less right about that, and others turn out to be wrong. Don't treat your inside view as entirely reliable here.

Poly relationships

If you’re dating multiple EAs, consider the dynamics between those people along with the factors mentioned above. You might not be able to fully rely on open communication flagging any problems to you. For example, some people in EA have expressed that they’re not comfortable applying for opportunities (e.g. funding) to their partner’s partner. 

Mitigation steps

When considering a relationship, have a talk early on about how this might affect each of you. Will it make it hard or impossible to work at the same organization? If one of you is involved in funding, what will the process be if the other applies for funding? And given that you won’t have thought of every weird situation that could come up, are you generally OK with having more complexity because of being in the same field?

It may be hard to approach people you’re interested in dating without them feeling some pressure to accept. Possible steps:

More conservatively, you might decide not to start new sexual or romantic relationships with EAs. Reasons that might push you toward this: 

Once a relationship is underway:

This stuff is weird and hard, and I’m available to try to help

Both in social work and in EA work, I’ve talked to people in a lot of weird and hard situations, and I’m not easy to freak out. Feel free to email (julia.wise@centreforeffectivealtruism.org) or book a call with me if there’s something that might be helpful to talk over confidentially. 

Examples:

14 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Sara Elsholz · 2022-06-02T09:31:01.685Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Social situations are also assessments"

This is something I was surprised by when I first got more involved. Thank you for writing it out so clearly - I think there are many people who would benefit from knowing about these EA social dynamics. 

And more general: Thank you for providing so much value to the community and offering to help in these tricky situations.

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2022-06-01T22:55:16.479Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing this Julia! I think this could be a helpful resource for newer EAs who haven't interacted much with the community, a lot goes unsaid and surprises people when they are first figuring out the social dynamics in EA. 

comment by tobyj (tobyjolly) · 2022-06-09T09:02:13.649Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for writing this Julia. I think it's great that we have more shared views  and discussion about power dynamics. I've recently started working on an EA project full time, and it was jarring to realise that at some of the social events I attend, >50% of the attendees are professional stakeholders (and some of the others will probably be future colleagues/stakeholders).

A couple of the points you made seem particularly important to me, so I thought it might be good to emphasize them and elaborate with some ideas:

Inside view vs outside view

Part of the reason power dynamics aren't always obvious,  is that it's very easy to come up with self-serving narratives to explain our own feelings and behavior. And our society has egalitarian norms that push us to want to see things as more equal that they are.  Here is an specific example of this from my partner, Hannah.

I suspect we should be very humble about our ability to clearly comprehend what is going on here. When so much of our social, romantic and professional lives are at stake all at once, there are huge returns to self-deception. This isn't a problem that is unique to EA, but EA is ridiculously tightly coupled in places, so it might be particularly hard.

Taking an outside view is likely to be key to understanding and responding to the power dynamics of your relationships. This will include considering things like age, wealth, experience, self esteem, and seniority.

One of the most important area to take an objective/analytical/outside view of power in a relationship is to consider what your alternatives to a given relationship are, and how they compare to the other person's alternatives (i.e. your respective BATNAs). Growing your BATNA might be a key way to ensure you are not disempowered - e.g.

  • Make more friends and professional relationships outside EA so you can more easily decouple from the community
  • Build financial runway so you can quit if needed
  • Develop skills that  are less specifically targeted at an EA career track
  • Develop a more internally-sourced sense of self worth (see Charlie's post on self-love [EA · GW])

Setting boundaries

The boundary setting things you lay out are great - here are some ideas for relevant boundaries that I have been trying to employ:

  • Set clearer and harder boundaries than feels necessary - e.g. avoid dating any current or likely future colleagues, set much higher bars to date people who are more closely enmeshed in your social and professional circles.
  • Try to be in touch with, and trust, your feelings more - if a situation or relationship feels bad, don't think you need to come up with a narrative to explain it - you can act to set boundaries based on the badness of the feeling alone, and can aim for the minimum viable explanation when telling people why.
  • Avoid putting too much trust in individuals who don't seem self-aware about their own perverse incentives. Nobody will be able to see this perfectly, and self-deceptions will be happening. But if someone isn't able to demonstrate the self awareness or trust to be able to reveal their own incentives, think about backing slowly away.
  • For any relationship where there is a clear dependency (managers and reports, romantic partners, housemates) - insist on regular conversations about how the relationship is going and how it can be improved. In these conversations you should probably have the expectation that you are both minimizing conflict, and a shared goal of uncovering and resolving those conflicts. (resistance to these conversations is the reddest of red flags in my experience...)

The tone of this post is wary, but largely positive. I think it's important to highlight that the areas where power dynamics go most unaddressed are where you will find real mistreatment, abuse, and bullying. 

I would love EA (and people in general) to be having more open conversations about this. Although we should also be humble. Illegible, unaddressed and painful power dynamics are the norm of human groups, not the exception.

comment by Lee McC · 2022-06-02T02:59:24.980Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On the topic of "Some factors in how people influence each other" 

I've seen the word "rank" used to help talk about perceived power in other spaces. Saying "they have rank" means that their voice or perspective is given more weight and credence, which may have nothing to do with a person's title and everything to do with the "factors in how people influence each other". 

The short-hand of "rank" can help explain the "shifting sands" experience of people changing status over time. Rank can be held through the transitions of switching jobs and is also always contextual to the people in the room. 

For example, you might imagine that there's an organization where a longstanding volunteer has significantly more rank than the recently-hired new director of the organization. The volunteer knows who is who, how "things get done around here", has institutional memory, etc. The new director would be wise to notice that the volunteer has a lot of rank in the organization, try to get to know them, and get mentored by them, in order for the director to build their own rank in the organization (unless the director is coming in to change direction, in which case they'll need to bring or build their rank in other ways).  If the director is blind to this and thinks they'll have a lot of power just based on their title, they're likely to have a rude awakening in several months when they hit conflicts or can't seem to get things done. 

There's nothing wrong with rank. Many left-leaning spaces (especially social justice-oriented)  and more broadly spaces made of "polite" people often try to pretend that "we're all equals" or "non-hierarchical" which is usually quite false. It can be very detrimental when rank isn't acknowledged or is taboo to talk about. When we pretend that things are flat, people can't see rank as well. People with less rank don't understand why they can't get things done and how to be more effective when they're supposed to be equal to everyone else. People with rank don't know they need to invite others to give their opinions and welcome contradiction, or somewhat conversely, don't step into being effective leaders for fear of dominating when actually many people might want them to speak up more! 

So, thank you Julia for this post! Noticing these dynamics can help people navigate them much easier, build leadership, and support better mentorship. 
 

Replies from: Julia_Wise
comment by Julia_Wise · 2022-06-03T17:07:42.051Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good point! I think of this thing as "cred" - for example I've never been a manager, but I'm the longest-serving member of staff at CEA and have cred of various kinds that's not related to my formal role in the organization. So I should think about how to use that responsibly.

comment by Agrippa · 2022-06-08T21:10:55.057Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would really like to participate in the version of EA where these power imbalances are not so severe. I think we could achieve this in various ways. 

I think that insofar that the EA social scene is downstream of the EA institutions then these power imbalances will be a lot more totalizing. In contrast the EA Hotel felt like a truly safe environment. 

comment by Holly K · 2022-06-06T13:59:33.265Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Julia. This was interesting to read. Thank you for getting explicit about all the ways that these things can get tricky! As someone from a field (medicine) that seems to foster (equally weird) relationships of variable complexity amongst colleagues and across all "power levels", I've seen and heard of a LOT of these (and yes, been in my fair share of weird situations myself!). Just a point - you can decide not to date someone within the EA community. Like regardless of your feelings, you can actually just make that choice and sometimes that makes life easier. Having a partner who knows NOTHING about your professional world is awesome and having them as an objective outsider who isn't as wrapped up in it all can be quite grounding (speaking from past experience). Seeing your ex multiple times a day when you don't expect it, hearing the gossip about who your previous fling is hooking up with from an unknowing colleague, seeing the guy/gal who said no to a date, knowing that everyone knows your business. LESS awesome. Truly less awesome... I get working with people in close proximity who are inspiring and understand the intricacies of a weird profession can become alluring/attractive but also, the head can rule over the heart. Also, being single and your own person is awesome too!

comment by rank_77 · 2022-06-25T17:19:25.707Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From the poly relationships section:

“For example, some people in EA have expressed that they’re not comfortable applying for opportunities (e.g. funding) to their partner’s partner.”

If true, this makes me sad.

comment by Jet Li · 2022-06-25T14:44:11.430Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some people have an inside view that dating across power levels won’t be a problem for them. They believe they’ll be responsible about it, and it won’t affect work. Some people are more or less right about that, and others turn out to be wrong. Don't treat your inside view as entirely reliable here.

I really like this concise pointer toward taking the outside view when thinking about/forecasting how your relationship might turn out. In my experience, very few people do this, even people who I’d otherwise class as having sound judgment.

comment by Buck · 2022-06-02T03:23:11.033Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Unfortunately, reciprocity.io is currently down (as of a few hours ago). I think it will hopefully be back in <24 hours.

 

EDIT now back up 

Replies from: NovaDasSarma
comment by Nova DasSarma (NovaDasSarma) · 2022-06-02T03:27:55.553Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you're a Discord user, then https://fletcher.fun/?view=reciprocity fulfills a similar purpose.

comment by Luisa_Rodriguez · 2022-06-03T08:48:10.077Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I really loved this post! Thanks for writing it, Julia!

comment by Henry_Sleight · 2022-06-03T15:02:30.321Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Awesome post! I think it's great to explicify this stuff and it would have made my transition into working in EA spaces much smoother (and will probably make the tail end of that transition faster and safer!). What would you recommend to people who want to read/talk/think more about this?

Replies from: tamgent
comment by tamgent · 2022-06-07T07:28:24.733Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is not about the EA community, but something that comes to mind which I enjoyed is the essay Tyranny of the Structurelessness, written in the 70s.