As children we learn about the food chain. The real food chain with plants, animals, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, predators and prey. As adults we learn about the social and corporate food chain. The one with job titles, job levels, financial status and celebrity and class attached to it. This food chain, or hierarchy, can be found in every aspect of human life. In religion. In the classroom. In relationships and families. In the workplace. In government. In tribal societies. Hierarchy is used as an organizing principle. It tells you your place in the world. The scope of what is ok for you to say and do. Where your powers end. Where they begin.
Millennials are often at the very bottom of the corporate hierarchy. Despite comprising over 50% of the workforce in many, many companies now, Millennials are often still wedged around the bottom of the totem pole. We do the grunt work but we don’t yet have the ‘experience’, the ‘wisdom’ or the ‘seniority’ to really have our ideas heard, respected and actioned. As an old soul living in a Millennial body, I often struggle with the disconnect between numeric age and experience and the innate and steady perspective, leadership and wisdom I carry in me as a person. The steep, steep hierarchy that exists in old-school establishments like investment banks and governments is thankfully being revolutionized by forward thinking start-ups, Silicon Valley-esque businesses and creative industries. My experience, however, has fallen outside of the scope of those organizations rethinking the idea of the corporate hierarchy but I acknowledge that many Millennials may be having experiences that are a lot different and a lot more flat than mine.
Hierarchy, however, exists outside of the workplace too. The cult of celebrity and the existence of exclusive UHNWI (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, so exclusive they have their own acronym), creates a social chasm between the ‘normal’ people and the superhumans. There is your neighbour and then there is Angelina Jolie, Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton. Mythic creatures that we can spend whole days Googling and YouTubing, each snippet of information increasing that distance between our insignificance and ordinariness and their extraordinariness and unattainable lives.
In relationships hierarchy exist as well. The one who ‘wears the pants’ in a partnership. The disciplinarian mom or dad. The elders in a jirga. The oldest sibling.
When we fully buy into the idea of hierarchy we can consciously shut down parts of our truth, parts of our dreams, parts of our ambitions, parts of our authenticity. Not voicing our opinion in the meeting. Feeling taken advantage of by a friend. Walking, head down, through Business Class to Economy. Too embarrassed to introduce ourselves to our idol at the networking event. When we fully buy into the idea of hierarchy, we take away some of our own power. We downsize ourselves. We feel we don’t deserve to be brilliant, seen and heard. We reign ourselves in. We reduce our worthiness.
I am not under the illusion that we can live in a world without hierarchy. Hierarchy has been with us since the beginning of time. Catholicism, monarchies and colonial empires were built on the principle of hierarchy. We have had great leaders and idolized celebrities for centuries.
I am simply probing at the self-effacing byproduct of hierarchy that many people experience, Millennials and beyond, and hoping to help others let the myth of hierarchy lose its group over their self-worth and confidence.
Flattening hierarchy means treating everyone with equal courtesy and respect. The IT support worker guiding you through your computer reboot from the Philippines, the lady emptying your work bin and mopping the bathroom floor, the young barista making your latte, the President of your company, the celebrity you catch sight of on the street, your friends but also strangers, the high-school drop out and the Nobel-prize winner…
We all came from the same place. None of us were born with stamps of excellence and others with stamps of worthlessness. We are born into this world equal. It is the structured cultures, societies and systems that dictate the stories and experiences that create a belief of our place on the food chain.
Confidently powering through the webs of hierarchy should not be confused with arrogance. There are many people who see hierarchy as a challenge to be as aggressive and arrogant as possible. The harder they become and the harder they fight, the more they can throw their bitterness and anger borne from their believed place in the hierarchy back into the faces of those they see as above them. Approaching hierarchy from a place of attack simply reinforces the rigidity of the structure. Those that do wield more authority simply tighten the iron first. The aggressiveness reinforces the principle of authority inherent to hierarchy. “Look, we need this food chain to keep our grip over these rogue and violent anarchists”.
The first step to reducing our experience of hierarchy is simply to make every interaction we have a positive one. You are no more or no less than Barack Obama. You are no more and no less than your cleaner. Be yourself. Be authentic. Be kind. If our focus stays on making every interaction a positive one, we can lessen the anxiety of hierarchy by smiling confidently and exchanging pleasantries just the same whether it is with a cashier or with our manager.
What truth have you been hiding because of where you think you exist on the food chain? Where and when do you feel you make yourself small? With whom or in what situations do you feel fearful and lesser than?
Own your power. Own your worth. Smile, encourage others, be confident. As cliched as it is, deconstructing the hierarchy is truly as simple as treating everyone as you would like to be treated.
Own your space and see you out there!