They create an atmosphere of unimpeachable dignity from top to bottom in their organizations. As Robert Knisely put it: “For his book Good to Great, Jim Collins sifted through the 1,435 firms that have ever been in the Fortune 500. He found only 11 firms that demonstrated periods of exceptional performance. Notably, all 11 had CEOs who were humble. 'Humble' is Collins’s word, and by it he means a CEO who would listen to anyone, anytime, who might have something to offer to the CEO’s quest for success. In other words, these CEOs eliminated every trace of rankism from their work lives – and they, and their companies, won big.”
Ten Ways to Combat Rankism in the Workplace
If companies that reduce rankism are more efficient and productive, the question becomes: How can rankism be rooted out of an organization? How can a corporate culture of rankism be transformed into a dignitarian one? Here are ten methods for doing so.
1. Recognize and Listen
Soon after his appointment as director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Dr. Noel Hinners had an epiphany:
I realized that the hierarchy was inverted—that the most important people, in terms of their daily contribution to the mission of the museum, were not those with the highest rank. To my surprise, it was quite the opposite.
Ten million people visit the museum every year—the highest attendance of any museum in the world. When you have that many people tramping through your living room, it takes an incredible effort, for example, to simply keep the chewing gum off the floor.
The janitorial staff did an unbelievable job keeping the museum clean and presentable. The security staff has to cope with the public and treat them with respect, but also make sure that no one vandalizes the exhibits. The education department was providing a service to a lot of school kids in the district. Without the restoration staff, which restores old airplanes and space artifacts to pristine condition, you couldn’t put the exhibits together. And without the exhibits there was no reason to have the curators who do the research and collect the artifacts, and without them there’d be no need for my director’s job.
After having this realization at his first “all hands” meeting of the museum staff, Dr. Hinners acknowledged the importance of every job and the individuals who held them. Subsequently, he practiced “management by walking around,” a tactic made famous by Mayor John Lindsay, who walked the streets of New York City during the racial strife of the 1960s. Throughout his tenure, Dr. Hinners would wander through the museum visiting with employees. He says, “You don’t know what goes on in an organization unless you meet people where they work, see for yourself, and listen, listen, listen.”
Obviously, making a display of listening is not enough. Leaders have to put what they hear to use and employees have to see that the information they are volunteering is making a tangible difference.
Selectively ignoring subordinates sends a message of disrespect that can have unexpected consequences. At an open house for parents, the principal of a public elementary school in the San Francisco Bay Area introduced every teacher on the staff, save one. That woman, who taught computer use to over three hundred students, interpreted the omission as a snub deriving from her “instructor” status, which set her apart from the accredited teachers. The next day she submitted a letter of resignation in which she wrote:
I feel this is a classic example of rankism. I am under contract as an instructor, but I am not being recognized in this position. In addition, I am not included on the staff e-mail list and yet I’m expected to attend meetings and make presentations without seeing the agenda ahead of time. If I am expected to act like a staff member, then why am I not treated like one? I enjoy my students and my teaching job very much. But I also feel that you must recognize my position as a staff member of this school.
In this case the principal listened, perhaps because many of the staff, as well as parents, came to the defense of the aggrieved instructor. The principal not only apologized for her omission to the teacher—who subsequently withdrew her resignation—but also initiated an inquiry into rankism in her school. As is often the case, a single incident and someone willing to put his or her job on the line over it, precipitated a broader transformation. But this happened only because the leader chose listening over defensiveness and turned an instance of malrecognition into a policy of respect.
2. Facilitate Questions, Protect Dissent
A fundamental characteristic of a healthy work culture is that everyone, regardless of rank, exhibits a questioning attitude. The freedom to challenge any action, any condition, and any assertion cannot be maintained in an environment laced with rankism. Only by continually demonstrating respect for all opinions and those who hold them will an environment be maintained in which a spirit of inquiry can thrive. Silicon Valley companies such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard, whose continuing success is vitally dependent on innovation, pioneered corporate cultures in which everything technical could be questioned by anyone, regardless of rank or seniority. The phenomenally successful Google has not only followed in their footsteps in this regard but breaks new ground in creating and implementing a nondiscriminatory workplace and a dignitarian corporate culture.
The U.S. Navy nuclear power program employs the method of a minority report. Whenever a complex issue is under discussion and the answer is not obvious, a minority report must be prepared. Even if everyone agrees on an answer, the group leader asks someone to provide a report that presents the best case for the other side of the issue.
Making it the manager’s responsibility to seek a minority view lifts the burden and stigma from potential dissenters. Rather than discourage whistle-blowing, good managers create an open environment in which doing so never becomes necessary.
3. Hold People Accountable and Affix Responsibility
An indispensable element of a dignitarian work environment is accountability. In some highly technical arenas, errors in calculations can cost lives. Bridges have collapsed because of such mistakes. The important thing is to catch potential problems in a way that protects the dignity of workers so they won’t be inhibited about voicing their concerns.
In many engineering workplaces both the originator of the work and an assigned checker must sign off on calculations and drawings. To qualify as a checker, a person must be capable of authoring the same work as the originator. At one nuclear plant, two signatures are required to issue a result. If it is later found to contain mistakes, the manager of the two individuals is informed. The manager in turn informs the two workers and records each name. Should one of the names emerge later as either the originator or checker on another calculation containing errors, a tick mark is placed by that person’s name.
You don’t want to get that second tick mark. This is accountability in a dignitarian manner: The expectation of accurate work is conveyed at the outset and the consequences for anything less are applied equally regardless of rank.
Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the creator of the nuclear navy, hung posters in his office and the officers’s quarters that read: Responsibility can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it.
Creating a dignitarian culture in an organization—and ultimately achieving a dignitarian society—requires more than an absence of rankism. It necessitates understanding that responsibilities will vary with rank and station and that individuals must fully comprehend and own those responsibilities. A dignitarian society is one in which each of us is accountable to every other person for fulfilling the tasks we take on.
4. Incorporate “Flex-Rank”
Temporary rank-leveling is nowhere more prevalent than on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. A strict hierarchy pervades every branch of the military. During an interview, Hal Gehman, chairman of the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board, remarked that people wear their rank on their sleeve, and authority is based on that rank, not on how smart you are or your length of service. A commander aviator is senior to a lieutenant commander aviator, even if the lieutenant commander is a better pilot. But once on the flight deck, a crew reorganizes itself horizontally.
Everyone has a job and anyone is authorized to stop the whole process. When someone does this, that person is rewarded for stepping forward and is never chastised or second-guessed, regardless of his or her station. Flight crews are very hierarchical, but crew members can become peers at a moment’s notice.
This same flexibility is now practiced in the cabins of commercial aircraft. Formerly, the captain was treated like a god. Challenging his authority, even in dire circumstances, violated cockpit culture. However, after several fatal crashes that investigative bodies attributed to pilot error, a new system was developed. Known in the airline industry as CRM—Cockpit Resource Management—it encourages subordinates to raise any question at any time. The goal is not to undermine the captain’s authority but rather to make it safe for other members of the flight crew to be more assertive, and when necessary, to override a captain who is operating the aircraft in a dangerous manner (for example, while intoxicated or when taking actions without the go-ahead from air traffic controllers).
As workplaces become dignitarian, rank becomes less rigid and fixed. While care must be taken not to assign it to someone lacking the necessary skill and competence, rank is likely to change on a task-by-task, or even hour-by-hour, basis. Faced with ever-shifting missions and circumstances, companies and organizations can reassign ranks to facilitate each new undertaking. There is no favoritism shown toward those temporarily serving in positions of high rank, and care is taken to protect the rights and privileges of those lower down on the totem pole.
5. Compensate Equitably
No organization can claim to be dignitarian if the ratio of the highest to lowest paid employees exceeds a certain number. What is that number and how is it determined?
The ratio is usually decided by the board of directors or by its committee on compensation. Typically, such groups include highly paid, high-ranking executives from other companies. If they are not already friends of the CEO or president, the latter are in a position to build and strengthen those friendships by lavishing attention and perks on board members. Sometimes outside compensation experts are brought in to advise board members on executive compensation, but the board members know it is management who butters their bread, not shareholders.
The resulting inflation of executive salaries is implicit in John Kenneth Galbraith’s wry and oft-quoted remark: “The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.”
The average ratio of highest to lowest paid employees in the United States is in the hundreds. In Europe and Japan it is variously put at ten to fifteen, an order of magnitude less. It is rankism on the part of U.S. company directors, not the relative expertise of their CEOs, that accounts for this gross disparity.
A dignitarian way to restore fairness in compensation is for the board to take into account the views of all stakeholders in the organization. In the corporate world, this includes employees, customers, and shareholders. In the academic world, it means students, faculty, staff, alumni, and perhaps a few representatives from the local community. In the nonprofit world, it is staff members, funders, and the community served by the organization.
Some companies have already begun the journey toward a fair compensation model that will be the centerpiece of a dignitarian workplace. Newsweek reports that at the grocery chain Whole Foods, executive salaries are capped at fourteen times the average worker’s pay, leaving the CEO, whose stock holdings have made him a multimillionaire, with a salary of $342,000. In the same spirit, Ben and Jerry, the ice cream gurus and founders (and principal shareholders) of their successful firm, have limited their own salaries to seven times that of the janitors. Though these steps toward a dignitarian workplace are unlikely to be enforced when founders no longer control a company, they nonetheless represent significant milestones.
And what such trailblazers find when they give their workers a voice in management decisions and a stake in earnings is that the enterprise and everyone involved in it reaps significant benefits.
Dennis Bakke, the author of Joy at Work, describes the company he cofounded and led—AES Corporation, a leading independent producer of electricity—as “a workplace where every person, from custodian to CEO, has the power to use his or her God-given talents free of needless corporate bureaucracy…Every decision made at the top is lamented as a lost chance to delegate responsibility – and all employees are encouraged to take the game-winning shot, even when it isn’t a slam dunk.” Bakke describes a model of a company that treats employees with respect, delegates power, and holds those who assume it accountable, and argues that this all makes good business sense.
7. Break the Taboo on Rank
Among the twenty “Breakthrough Ideas for 2005,” the Harvard Business Review lists “A Taboo on Taboos.” These include such old, familiar risqué subjects as sex, death, and God. But one taboo remains—one still too hot to touch in corporate America—and that is rank. Rank is the elephant in the boardroom and on the factory floor. As with other elephants that have sat in our living rooms, bedrooms, and schoolrooms over the years, we can learn to talk about it and in so doing relieve a lot of pain and eliminate dysfunctionality. We’ve learned to discuss race, gender, and sex. So, too, can we learn to discuss rank—its rights, its responsibilities, and especially the limits to those rights and responsibilities. Unless we talk about rank, we are powerless against rankism.
Once rankism is on the table, it’s harder to get away with it. The moment politicians recognize and acknowledge it as a problem, any rankism on their part will be seen as hypocrisy. And if there’s one thing voters dislike in their public servants, it’s hypocrisy.
Breaking the taboo on openly addressing the subject of rank and learning to recognize and call rankism by name are prerequisites to exposing our uses of power to public scrutiny and subsequently rejecting any that are judged likely to inflict indignity. This is what it means to build a dignitarian society.
8. Be Transparent
Opacity, censorship, and secrecy are rankism’s handmaidens. What can’t be seen, what goes on behind closed doors, what’s recorded in closed books, can’t be effectively evaluated or criticized.
A simple thing like open budgeting can allay suspicion, yield savings, and create a sense of communal trust. We opened the books at Oberlin College when I was president during the 1970s and after a flurry of interest during which people satisfied themselves on various counts, attention shifted to other matters. But knowing that anyone could examine the budget at any time kept administrators on their toes and eliminated chronic distrust on the part of students and faculty. If a doubt arose at some point about finances, those concerned could just go see for themselves. This put a damper on rumor-mongering, too, because we could always point to the actual figures.
The secrecy in which compensation packages are typically cloaked in most organizations gives those who are privy to this information—high-level managers—an unfair advantage over everyone else. Extending transparency to budgets and compensation discourages favoritism, one of the most invidious forms of rankism.
9. Flatten Unnecessary Hierarchies
Although rank often serves a valid purpose—clarifying levels of authority and expediting decision making—when it’s not needed to get the job done, its existence alone can foster rankist practices. All too often rank functions primarily to provide a specious rationalization for unwarranted distinctions in status, salary, and perks. Gerard Fairtlough’s book The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy, and Responsible Autonomy in Organizations describes various models, from pyramidal to flat, and the conditions under which each works best.
One way to get rid of rankism is, of course, the one that has long been promoted by egalitarians—eliminating rank altogether. My favorite example of an organization that went this route is the Juice Bar Collective in Berkeley, California, where I often get lunch. At this small business, which provides takeout dishes made from scratch, each of the nine members is paid the same $14 per hour and each has one vote on policy. Old-timers get a little deference from newer members when it comes to hours, but not much and not for long.
When I ask what it’s like to work there, everyone says pretty much the same thing: “It’s a family. We each have our own opinions but we’re very supportive of each other. We’re working for ourselves and none of us ever wants to work for a boss again.” The newest member of the collective told me, “What a great business this is! I am a one-ninth owner of the enterprise. I love everyone I work with. It’s hard work but it’s also wrong to call it work. It’s worth making less money to be happy and on equal footing in your work life.”
One old-timer volunteered: “We think about the customer’s health. We care about the people we’re feeding. The customer is always right, but if one of them is outrageously rude we reserve the right to tell them to go home and cook their own food. We do not feel we deserve to be abused by customers who feel they aren’t being served fast enough. We are human beings and we are giving you food and you are not higher than we are. That’s the feeling of working at the Juice Bar.”
Not far from the Juice Bar sits the Cheese Board, a sister collective founded by the same people and run according to similar principles. It sells cheeses from all over the world as well as bread and bakery goods made on the premises. Recently, as I paid for a scone, I asked the cashier what it’s like to work there. She replied, “It’s nice. I’ve been here for fifteen years. We own the place.” Then she looked up with a wry smile and added pointedly, “We’re not disgruntled workers!”
These two examples offer valuable models of successful small businesses with flattened hierarchies run by happy employees who are proud of their products. Dignity is implicit. It even seems to rub off on customers—a notably contented lot.
What about issues of diversity in a dignitarian workplace? The diversity that is increasingly common in today’s work environment makes ridding the workplace of rankism all the more important. Abuse and discrimination that might be taken for granted between people in the same identity group are likely to be magnified when they involve people of different race, gender, and so on. As Art Kleiner, editor-in-chief of Strategy + Business, writes:
A growing body of academic work substantiates the presence of rankism and its destructive impact. Research by Toni Gregory of the Fielding Institute strongly shows that the ability to create a diverse workplace depends on building up the mental and emotional health of the people who work there, from the executives on down. Dr. Gregory says, “Rankism is one of the key blocks to…diversity-maturity: that emotional growth which a diverse workplace requires.” Dr. David A. Thomas, an expert on diversity at the Harvard Business School, points out that businesses, in their haste to treat a diverse workforce equitably, lose something when they create a corporate culture that inadvertently promotes sameness and suppresses cultural differences.
As rankism is identified and rejected and dignity becomes secure, the differences that diversity brings to the workplace are welcomed.
The next step beyond a diverse workplace is a dignitarian one wherein cultural differences can be celebrated and tapped for the wisdom inherent in them instead of blandness being promoted out of fear of reigniting old prejudices.
A final example of flattening unnecessary hierarchy is provided by the decentralization practiced by MoveOn, the Internet-based, nonprofit political action group. The “MoveOn Way” is described by cofounder Wes Boyd:
MoveOn staff live all around the country, and no two people work in the same location. This is not an accident. It’s an experiment in radical decentralization, sometimes called the “virtual office,” that we believe has been an important part of our success. The experiment began when we engaged our first core team members and didn’t require any of them to relocate to San Francisco. We soon discovered that decentralization gave us important advantages over traditional organizations.
Facilities are a major part of just about every organization’s cost structure. Because we have no headquarters, we can put the money saved into benefits for staff. Since we live wherever we want in the country and work at home, this saves hours of commuting time.
In addition, MoveOn reimburses people for home office space and expenditures, which helps them afford a good place to live. Benefits like these are a great recruitment tool. They enable us to hire the best applicants for the job, no matter where they reside.
It’s very important that we are not centered in Washington, D.C., and that we are truly populist. MoveOn staff are “embedded” in the communities that make up America. Our work is not our entire life.
As social beings, we pursue the healthy development of community and connections outside work. This delivers the extra benefit of helping us avoid the trap of hyper-activism in which our only experience of the world is with people who think like us.
We believe that decentralization works—but we are not inflexible. There are times when employees do need to be in the same place at the same time. We make exceptions for (1) periodic retreats for developing strategic plans and reconnecting as a team, (2) training periods for new staff, and (3) crash projects. But these times must be short and defined, and do not lead to the establishment of hub offices. No power centers are permitted—a practice which fosters fair and equal treatment for everyone.
One of the pitfalls of political activism is assuming an elitist posture toward the rank-and-file membership. MoveOn’s commitment to a flat and decentralized organization supports us in approaching our members the same way we must approach each other—respectfully.
In addition to flattening unnecessary hierarchies, there have been some dramatic examples of flattening illegitimate hierarchies by what can perhaps be described as an “over-my-dead-body” strategy. This occurs when a somebody comes to the defense of a nobody who is being abused by another somebody, and in effect, says to the bully, “If you attack him, you attack me. I stand with those you are victimizing and together we shall stand you down.”
In his book Exodus, Leon Uris tells the story of King Christian X of Denmark, who adopted this strategy to undermine the imposition of an illegitimate, rankist social hierarchy under the Nazi occupation. As the author tells it, when the German occupiers ordered Jews to sew yellow Stars of David to their sleeves to mark them for discrimination, expatriation, and as we now know, extermination, the Danish king had the star sewn on his sleeve and encouraged all Danes to do likewise.
The veracity of this story has since been questioned, as the Jews in Denmark were evidently never forced to wear the Star of David. But another tale, which is accepted as truth, tells of King Christian’s successful resistance to the swastika being flown over the Danish parliament. The king summoned a senior Nazi official and told him to take down the flag. When the official refused, Christian is reported to have said, “A Danish soldier will remove it.” When the German replied that the soldier would be shot, the king’s reply was, “I think not. For I shall be that soldier.” The German flag was removed.
I mention these stories not simply because they are moving but to demonstrate two things: First, we love people of high rank who use the power of their rank to serve a group for which they have responsibility, especially when doing so places them in jeopardy; and second, there are times when the only person who can challenge a rankist offense is someone who outranks the perpetrator.
10. Consider Peer-to-Peer Organization
Networks are replacing hierarchies everywhere you look. Michel Bauwens sees peer-to-peer (P2P) networks as the premise of a new mode of civilization. He describes them as “a form of organization which rests upon the free cooperation of equipotent partners performing a common task for the common good, without recourse to monetary compensation as the key motivating factor, and not organized according to hierarchical methods of command and control.”
Examples of this kind of collaborative peer production include the Internet, digital file sharing, grid computing, blogs, open source operating systems such as Linux, the open access encyclopedia Wikipedia.org, and web-based organizations such as Meetup.com, Newstrust.net, Worldchanging.com, and Sourceforge.net. Intelligence is located everywhere within these entities.
P2P networks have antecedents in human history. Juries are a form of peer governance of long standing. In classical Athens, as well as medieval Florence, issues of war and peace were decided by public assemblies. An emerging noxious kind of P2P organization consists of networks of small, autonomous terrorist cells. Their non-hierarchical structure makes them less vulnerable to attrition and decapitation, and presents a resilient, robust target for the militaries charged with neutralizing them.
In business, two new developments—the abundance of information and new digital technologies—are making P2P networks competitive with, if not superior to, the centralized hierarchical models that now predominate. Bauwens sees P2P networks as the technological framework of cognitive capitalism—the successor to merchant and industrial capitalism. He argues that they signal the emergence of a new form of power in which expertise can unexpectedly announce itself as needed, and in which participants are rewarded for giving knowledge away because doing so builds their reputation. Individuals who join a P2P project subordinate personal gain to building a common resource that is legally protected from usurpation by any one contributor. Eventually, common ideas emerge that represent a synthesis of the contributions of the many.
The characteristics and architectures of P2P networks, as well as their limitations, are not yet fully understood. But it is already clear that in some contexts, the budding open source movement is giving traditional hierarchies a run for the money.
Open source communities see themselves as pure meritocracies. But while the abolition of rank automatically eliminates certain blatant kinds of rankism, it can mask jockeying for status. Most common is an atmosphere of aristocratic noblesse oblige. “Newbies” may be snubbed by old-timers of proven repute and have to undergo a long apprenticeship before their ideas are taken seriously. As in more traditional organizational models, people who feel insecure are more likely to mount challenges to the dignity of others in order to find out where they themselves stand.
Other problems that typically plague non-hierarchical models are stagnation and lapses in responsibility. It is silly to argue that hierarchy or heterarchy or P2P is always the better model. The real question is: What kind of organization is best suited to getting the job at hand done and done well? Once that decision is made, it’s important to bear in mind that rankism can rear its dysfunctional head in one way or another in almost any kind of institution. It won’t be eliminated simply by redrawing the organizational chart.
This is the seventh part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.
[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]