Standard hierarchy is the lowest form of respect

Hierarchy In Organizations

Hierarchy, Baby!

You ever get into discussions with people at work and they invariably say something like, “Well, if I ran stuff…” We’ve all done this. I have, probably more times than I can count. For a frame of reference there, I’m 34 and have been a manager maybe once or twice in the context of summer programs or interns, so clearly I’m not doing a lot in the way of “Well, I run stuff…”

I’ve long wondered about the ties between “hierarchy” (the organizational structure, top-to-bottom, of a place) and “respect.” At most places, the standard assumption is to respect the top of the hierarchy, at least in public/to their face/at events. (Behind their backs, you may grouse with co-workers about them.) I’ve also known a lot of people who aspire to higher positions under the guise of “wanting to make things better,” but in reality their goal is “to have people respect them.”

In reality, when your respect comes solely from hierarchy, that’s the lowest form of respect possible.

Don’t believe me? Read this from Harvard Business Review. It’s from the CEO of Red Hat. It’s mostly pretty interesting, and makes that same point I put in bold above: hierarchy as your driving force of respect is not a good thing. In the same vein, people often confuse “formal power” with “knowing what’s best.” That’s also a problem. (Work is fraught. It happens. You can drive strategy without formal power, but it’s challenging.)

The CEO of Red Hat uses these three ideas in terms of becoming a genuinely respected leader:

  • Show passion for the purpose of the organization
  • Demonstrate confidence
  • Engage your people

Those three bullet points are somewhat fraught, just for these three reasons:

Here was perhaps the most interesting section to me:

Owning up to what you don’t know is an important way to build trust. But it’s just as important to be able to contribute your knowledge and expertise in a way that’s more about the community and what it needs than it is about you and your ego. At Red Hat, one of the greatest insults or blows to your ego comes when you put something on one of the internal discussion threads and receive nothing back—neither positive nor negative. “That’s the worst outcome, truly,” Kim Jokisch, director of Red Hat’s employment branding and communications team, told me. “That means they’re likely ignoring it, which means you’ve failed in some way.

That’s interesting to me, just because I look at e-mail/thread/board response rates kind of the same way I look at the bigger issue, as in … people almost always ignore e-mails from down a chain, but almost never ignore e-mails from up the chain. Phrased another way: this is why “out-of-office” is bullshit.

If I put something on a discussion thread at any job I’ve ever had and heard nothing back — and then when I thought, “I’ve failed!!” — I’d probably have jumped off about six bridges by now. I get that Red Hat probably has a very specific type of culture internally and that’s awesome, but I can’t see a world where lack of response equates to failure. Most things don’t get a response down a chain; that happens almost regardless of your e-mail/message length.

I do think the whole association of “I have this title, so I deserve respect from others!” is terrible. The whole way you “come up” in the world — in athletics, in school, with your family and friends — respect has to be earned. It shouldn’t be earned from a title. It should be earned from your actions. That seems logical, right?

Phrase this another way: at most organizations, people get promoted — i.e. they earn the titles that supposedly come with respect — because they (a) play politics well or (b) make money for the organization. Both are inherently logical; big dogs won’t promote new people to the top that they don’t already like (politics) and no one deserves to make $240K if they’re only bringing in $75K in what they work on (making money).

But often, the types of people who are good at politics + making money are awful managers, because they’re the type of people who always assume “customer/client” is first/right/always wins and employee is “eh, whatever, they might leave anyway.” That’s a pervasive attitude.

So … just having the title in the hierarchy doesn’t afford you the respect. That’s actually the lowest form of respect you can have. The highest form has to be earned and worked-for.

Ted Bauer

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