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Recognizing Power Imbalances in Decision Making

Submitted by Janice McMillan

This activity makes visible the ways in which power works in society but more particularly, in the context of joint decision-making. It examines how power reinforces stereotypes, but it also offers opportunities to challenge traditional power dynamics.

average rating is 5 out of 5, based on 5 votes, rating(s)
Big white dog and small black dog on a dock by the lake

Learning Goals

  • Critically examine how assumptions and stereotypes influence decision making.

  • Illuminate how power works covertly in many contexts.


Set Up: Prepare for the Activity

Collect a stack of envelopes and place a different amount of beans in each envelope ranging from 0 - 5 beans in each envelope. The beans indicate the number of opportunities this person will have to speak during the discussion (and thus power or influence in the discussion).

Create a relevant scenario for small group discussion, use the scenario shown below, or select one from the What IF...Scenarios collection.

Organize participants into small groups (6-8 ppl).

Begin by introducing the learning goals of this activity.

Step One: Introduce the Scenario (5 min)

Share and review the selected scenario for the small group discussion. Read it aloud as a full group if necessary. Address any questions.

Sample Scenario:

You are a community group living in a place where jobs are scarce, poverty is rife, and there are not many opportunities for making a decent living. The community is quite cut off from neighboring communities as the train that used to link the community doesn’t run anymore due to the lines being faulty. You are able to receive some funding for a project and the community has to decide between the building of a resource center for youth skill building OR repairing the train line.

A community meeting is being called to decide which of the 2 options the community will vote for.

Step Two: Distribute Envelopes (5 min)

Shuffle the envelopes and randomly distribute them to participants in the group. Participants should not reveal the contents of their envelope or how many beans they have.

If doing this activity online, use the private chat function to distribute numbers, which will indicate how many times a person can speak during the discussion.

Invite participants to imagine a character who might represent this level of influence or power. The character should be a stakeholder in the topic that you are discussing. For example, if you are discussing a public health issue like COVID, then they might imagine:

  • A child (0-1 beans)

  • Doctor (4 beans)

  • Vaccine CEO (5 beans)

  • Sick person (0-2 beans)

  • Parent (2 beans)

  • Business owner (1-3 beans)

  • Essential worker (1-3 beans)

  • Grandparent (1-2 beans)

  • Hospital CEO (4 beans)

  • CDC director (1-4 beans)

Allow each participant to choose their own character based on their perception of power related to the stakeholder. While you can provide a general list of stakeholders for the issue you are discussing if required, it is best to not provide details on what power (number of beans) each stakeholder holds. Rather, leave it open for them to decide.

Explain that they can only contribute to the discussion the number of times indicated by the number of beans in their envelope. The discussion is over once all beans have been exhausted.

Step Three: Introduce Stakeholders (5 min)

Have participants introduce themselves as a stakeholder in this scenario and take on an identity they associate with their given beans. Instruct groups that a variety of stakeholders should be represented within their group and no one should reveal their beans.

Step Four: Discuss the Scenario (20 min)

Invite each group to start their discussions. They must decide on a course of action. Each person must represent the views of their selected stakeholder. Each time a participant speaks, they put one bean on the table.

At the end of the discussion, the group must come up with a decision or vote on the proposal (no additional comments can be added).

If doing this online, after the group has reached a decision or voted, ask participants to share with their group the number they were assigned just to make it clear.

Step Five: Debrief as a Full Group (10 min)

  • What did your group decide?

  • What impact, if any, did the number of contributions/power have on the discussion outcome?

  • What impact did the number of beans (power) have on you as a discussant? What did you notice yourself doing that you otherwise would not have done?

  • Which stakeholders held more or less power? Does this seem accurate to you? How would you represent their power?

  • What would it look like for power to be more fairly distributed within discussions and society? What can we do as individuals to notice and disrupt this power dynamic? What could you have done differently in this discussion?





Culturally Responsive Collaboration

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average rating is 5 out of 5

February 11, 2024 at 3:55:15 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

Lori Britt

October 3, 2023 at 5:00:05 PM

Have done this in the past, but today a group really blew me away. I did this as a Fishbowl with 7 students taking roles. Prior to the converstaion they could seek input from a few other students about what which decision they think the person in their role would support and why. I also asked them to come up with some things that were concerns for them. This 10 minute of prep time helped my role play participants really embody and feel confident in their roles. Great discussion about what deliberation looks like in practice and about how power can impact conversations and how a facilitator can try and minimize these power imbalances. I used the scenario above and assigned these roles (I was not sure my students woul be able to consider roles that would offer different perspectives): • Facilitator (non-voting) • Mayor • High school teacher • 17-year-old high school student • Transportation planner for the region • Local business owner • Economic development office for the region (your community and the surrounding communities served by the train) • 50-year-old who lost his job last year and who has been on unemployment

average rating is 5 out of 5

September 10, 2023 at 10:17:16 PM

average rating is 5 out of 5


July 7, 2023 at 4:01:49 PM

I think this one went really well, especially when adding in premade roles. I didn't have access to a color printer, so I handmade character cards. I had to modify this activity a bit, but it was a blast. We paired this activity with some of the skills from the book "Crucial Conversations". Some also had to be bad/uncooperative communicators in the scenarios we had. Here's a Google Drive link to the materials I used for this activity.

average rating is 5 out of 5


December 3, 2022 at 1:52:48 AM

Activity 4.7 uses a tactile and fun method, like a bag of beans, to have participants experience what it is like to have different amounts of power in a conversation. This activity also highlights how we base our ideas of how power is distributed on stereotypes.

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