Darden Professor Peter Belmi is driven to understand why inequality persists — why the data do not support the idea of the American Dream. “It’s what gets me up in the morning,” he says. And it is both a moral and a business problem, since “encouraging diversity in upper-level positions can be fruitful for organizations.”

Belmi’s recent work found that class-based inequality persists not only because of external factors like bias and “glass ceilings,” but also because of structural factors that discourage relatively low-class people from seeking positions of power in the first place.[i]

Playing the Game

The problem begins with the commonly held formula for what it takes to get ahead. Almost all people, regardless of social class, believe that getting ahead requires a mixture of pro-social (i.e., being a team player, competent, honest, authentic) and political (i.e., outspoken, flattering, treating others as “resources”) behaviors. But inequality begins to thrive in the disparity between which groups are actually willing to put both behaviors into practice. Even though everyone derides political angling, it turns out that relatively high-class individuals are still willing to play the game to get ahead.

Not so with lower-class individuals. Belmi found that “compared with individuals with relatively high social class, individuals with relatively low social class are less interested in seeking positions of power using political means, and as a result are less interested in seeking positions of power more broadly.” This aversion to politics helps to explain why more low-class individuals are not competing for positions of power, but not why the aversion exists in the first place.

The Root Cause

To explain the root cause, Belmi points to previous studies, which found that people of “relatively low social class are more strongly focused on others and less focused on themselves.” This manifests as being “more oriented toward interdependence, community and harmony: They pay more attention to the emotions of others, listen more empathetically to the perspectives of others, give more weight to social and communal relationships than to monetary gain, and feel more strongly opposed to advancement at the expense of others.” He adds that another study has shown that “they are not as narcissistic as their high-class counterparts.”

With these values, it is perhaps no surprise that low-class individuals tend to find political maneuvering especially “unpleasant and distasteful,” which dissuades “them from seeking that advancement in the first place.”

Self vs. Community

While this might make it sound like low-class individuals simply lack the self-interest drive that would motivate them to get ahead, Belmi explains that the difference comes down to a fundamentally different understanding of the “self.” Having few resources nurtures a sense of co-dependence within a community where sharing and mutual support are necessary for survival. Conversely, a community with an abundance of resources nurtures a culture of individualism.

Thus, for low-class individuals with communal values, “self-interest” manifests as a desire not just to promote themselves, but also their nearest and dearest. Self-interest, then, is still an important motivating factor for people seeking advancement, but it needs to be understood more broadly. “When we invited participants to conceptualize power as providing benefits to themselves alone, participants with relatively low subjective social class and participants from low-income families were less inclined to seek power compared with their relatively high-class counterparts. However, when we invited them to conceptualize power as relevant to others and providing benefits to their loved ones, this class-based difference disappeared.”

What to Do About It

Rather than ask lower-class individuals to overcome their aversion for office politics, inequality in the upper ranks of management might be solved by reframing the purpose of seeking power to include the good of the community with the good of the individual. By reframing the purpose of power, lower-class individuals may feel that arriving at the top need not conflict with their core values and sense of self.

Belmi’s top three recommendations for creating a more level playing field across class boundaries:

  1. Create a culture of merit-based advancement. Make promotions and other competitions as transparent as possible by providing clear metrics for evaluation, based on competence and technical skills.
  1. In so far as office politics are unavoidable, remind people that positions of power should be understood primarily for the impact and benefit they can confer on others.
  1. Last but not least, have an honest look at your firm’s culture, and make efforts to fix problems of stigma and prejudice, particularly in hiring and promotion cycles.

Peter Belmi is co-author of “Who Wants to Get to the Top? Class and Lay Theories About Power,” which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, with Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

[i] In their studies, the researchers measured low and high “social class” using participants’ self-perceived rank, income, education and parents’ education.

About the Expert

Peter Belmi

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Belmi seeks to understand why rich people are rich, why poor people are poor, and why social disparities between the rich and the poor persist over time. To answer these questions, he examines the social psychological forces that contribute to the reproduction of hierarchies and social inequality. In one line of research, he examines the subtle and insidious ways in which mainstream institutions block disadvantaged group members from getting to the top. In another line of research, he investigates how organizations and critical gateways create motivational barriers that discourage disadvantaged group members from pursuing their goals.

Belmi’s research has been published in top-tier journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Academy of Management DiscoveriesPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, as well as featured in The Wall Street JournalBloomberg BusinessweekFortune, The Huffington Post and Financial Times.

B.A., Ateneo de Manila University; M.S., San Francisco State University; Ph.D., Stanford Graduate School of Business