There is no doubt that we all live in a world of hierarchies. No matter what your position socially, professionally, or economically, there is almost inevitably someone “below” you and “above” you in the hierarchy in question at any given time. And to be clear, this dynamic happens regardless of our personal beliefs or desires relative to the social order in question. This is true because humans have an almost insatiable appetite to rank and order virtually any group or structure involving other human beings.
In any hierarchy it is generally accepted that we treat those above us with “respect” or at least with some kind of deference. After all, part of the rationale for hierarchies in the first place is to create privilege for those higher up the ladder. We do this with our language, dedication of time, and other behaviors such as how we prioritize our interactions and commitments. To be clear, there is a difference between understanding that we are ultimately accountable to a supervisor, executive, board member etc. vs. mindlessly deferring to the requests and agendas of those above us in a hierarchy. In fact, we can be respectful while also being assertive when some other use of our time and efforts will bring more value to all involved. And in some cases, “chain of command” is, in fact, critical, such as in combat, but that rarely applies to contemporary organizations.
Interestingly, it is less expected that we treat our lateral colleagues and subordinates with the same deference. Although the product of entrenched social norms, this is a mistake for your effectiveness as a leader. It is a mistake for at least two fairly significant reasons. The first is that this kind of behavior also subordinates the ideas and contributions made by colleagues and subordinates. The last thing you want as a leader is to make decisions or implement policies, etc. without the value of the best ideas or correct priorities because subordinates deferred to less effective ideas or solutions simply because they came from folks higher up the organizational ladder. The second reason it is a mistake to treat lateral colleagues and subordinates with less deference and respect than your superordinates is because if they believe they are obligated to engage in the same behavior, they will prioritize your requests and needs above their own or those of their lateral colleagues and subordinates. When that happens, you have everyone in the hierarchy prioritizing their efforts not by what is best for the organization or customers or other stakeholders, but by what they think their bosses want.
We have all fallen victim to this and it is one of the bigger dysfunctions in organizations today. An example is when you are working on a very important, even critical project or customer need, and you stop doing it, or worse, reschedule a meeting or planning session or negotiation involving other people, so that you can respond to a request from a superior that may have a fraction of the importance or value of what you are working on. This hurts you, the organization, and ironically, even the boss! And when your subordinates do it, it hurts you as well! One of the most devastating examples of blindly subordinating oneself to those “above” us has historically resulted in the loss of hundreds or potentially thousands of lives. In the old days, the captains in aircraft cockpits were second only to God. Co-pilots and flight engineers did not dare challenge captains or even point out mistakes. Because of this, many airplanes crashed at the hands of the captain even when one or more other crew members knew that they were in danger. This problem became so severe that the airline industry was forced to implement a completely new method of operations in cockpits called “crew resource management,” which was designed to remove blind deference to authority. While captains are still in charge, flight deck crews now operate as equal partners in the completion of safe flights, and among other changes, this has resulted in the safest form of transportation in the world.
So, despite the fact that it is often dysfunctional, why do managers often blindly prioritize and subordinate themselves to those above them while expecting the same from their subordinates? Sometimes it is an ego driven attempt to “remind” subordinates of their place in the hierarchy—another thing humans are regrettably quite good at. Unfortunately, that is like reminding a man with no hair on his head that he is bald. The reality is fairly self-evident. Sometimes, we are simply less thoughtful because the conventional wisdom is that we don’t have to care as much about folks below us in the chain of command. Sometimes we feel that if we’re going to “kowtow” to those above us, someone better kowtow to us. Unfortunately, we are hurting ourselves when we blindly defer to those above us, and when we expect the same behavior from those below us.
On the other hand, a manager who shows as much deference to lateral colleagues and subordinates as to superiors is not only leading in a more rational way, he or she is also demonstrating a sense of security and self-confidence that ironically engenders greater authority and respect than one gets by “demanding” it. Moreover, he or she is modeling precisely the kind of behavior that will make the broader team more collaborative and effective.
So, when dealing with superordinates, have the courage to use your intelligence and judgment to say and do what is best for the organization—and best for your bosses. And when interacting with subordinates, park the ego at the door, listen, and treat them how you want to be treated, not how the hierarchy suggests that you treat them.