In organizations, particularly those that are very hierarchical, we sometimes confuse subordination with subservience. That is a mistake.
Hierarchies are often rationale structures that separate different kinds of labor and responsibility based on experience, skill sets, and proven abilities. Org charts offer a visual perspective on this hierarchy. Generally speaking those charts are much narrower the higher up they go and the folks “at the top” are perceived as having more accountability, of making the “hard decisions,” and are often afforded status based on their place in the organization.
With that status comes responsibility and the obligation to understand the difference between an employee who is subordinate in the organization vs. subservient. Under no rational circumstance should we managers and leaders interpret our status as permission to treat those “below” us in the organization as subservient.
Similarly, although the work we do as senior leaders is often appropriately different than the work done by our employees, very little of what they do is “below” us. It can be enlightening and productive to occasionally share tasks with those who report to us. It helps us to better understand the challenges they face. It also keeps us humble and shows our employees that we respect the work they do.
There are other simple ways to show respect and understanding for our subordinates (and soften the edges of the hierarchy). For example, in meetings avoid taking the chair at the head of the table. Doing so directs conversation one direction, which may stroke the ego, but doesn’t produce the highest quality dialog. Likewise, encourage others to speak first in discussions. If you talk first, that will suggest a direction of thought that others will adapt to. Be the one who passes out coffee or water at a meeting. This isn’t just “for show.” Although these behaviors have value in their own right, the real usefulness if done regularly over time, is that they give employees permission to assert themselves without fearing that they will violate the rules of the hierarchy–and there is probably no greater risk to you as a leader and to your organization than subordinates who will not speak freely.
As managers, although it can certainly feel good to be the recipient of deferential behavior, that is not a particularly good dynamic for unfiltered sharing and certainly doesn’t encourage employees to challenge us, which they most definitely should. So, while our employees may be subordinate to us, they should never be subservient!