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Hierarchies and Collaboration

It wasn’t long into my experience delivering training classes to city employees that I noticed the impact of hierarchies on our group work. A supervisor in a group with his or her supervisees was either withdrawn and non-participatory or overbearing and controlling. Even if those in their group weren’t their supervisees, the fact this person had a higher place in the organization of which they were a part meant the people in the group were more reserved and less engaged in the process, waiting for direction from the “person in charge.”

This is a real challenge when what I’m trying to teach is creativity and collaboration. Both require a connectedness with oneself and others in an open and honest way. I soon discovered the supervisor had trouble being open and honest because they felt their authority could be undermined with an unintentional “mistake,” echoing the zero-deficit mentality that is the antithesis to learning from our failures, a critical mindset in fruitful collaboration.

Likewise, the supervisees were sensitive to feeling exposed and vulnerable to someone with control over their current job and future prospects. Since no one has ever been fired for agreeing with the person in charge of them, the simplest and most rational strategy is to go along with whatever is offered even if the supervisee has a better idea, in what Avinash Kaushik calls the HiPPO (“Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”) Effect.

Coming from the Army, I was very familiar with the impact of rank, specifically the differences of rank, on how people talked to each other and interacted. Even the relatively flat and egalitarian Special Forces unit I had the privilege of serving in still recognized the Team Leader spoke with an authority that no one else tried to match, though there was room for discussion and debate when there was a clear mission need at hand.

And to be fair, hierarchy isn’t a bad thing. Having more experienced and knowledgeable people in charge of making decisions that require a larger view of strategy and goals is important in any organization large enough for the issues to be too complex for any one person to fully internalize.

But the division of labor necessary to capture an enemy airfield or produce an automobile reliably and efficiently doesn’t easily translate into the modern work environment where tasks are much less well-defined and are much more difficult to clearly delineate, with overlapping responsibilities and expertise.

When it comes to open and honest creative collaboration, the need to shore up the lines, divisions, and levels of hierarchy become a hindrance to creating the open and honest environment necessary for easy cooperation to develop. Working in a design thinking mindset, we are ideally generating and discarding a number of ideas from everyone, building on each other’s contributions without regard to the ego, esteemed position, or authority of the creator.

That doesn’t mean we act disrespectful of each other (quite the opposite) but ideally we each separate our ego from the ideas so they can become part of a collaborative whole and part of that is removing the notion that anyone’s idea is privileged just by virtue of their position in the organization. Good ideas should rise to the top of the work because they are good and important not just because good and important people give them voice.

So what do I do about this?

My first attempt at challenging this reality was to socially re-engineer the classroom. Supervisors and their supervisees usually sit together in groups, so I would have everyone count off by fours (“1”, “2”, “3”, “4”) around the table (we usually cluster our participants together) that would determine a new group. This ensured the group was broken up as each person would end up in a new group without their colleagues.

But in a way, the damage was done in terms of other people’s conception of the divide. They knew a supervisor was in their midst who might work with their supervisor, so the effect was present no matter what group they ended up working with.

My new strategy is to skip titles entirely and see if I can’t level the playing field a little bit. Obviously one has great pride in their accomplishments and the respect that has earned them with their colleagues. I don’t want to take that away from them, but I want to encourage them to think of themselves as more than their title. As poet David Whyte has told us:

Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

Our job titles or positions are too small for who we are as living breathing humans. We are also mothers and fathers, citizens and customers, lovers and dreamers, idealists and cynics. I want more of those things that don’t fit into the title “Supervisor” or “Employee” to come into the room and inform the work we do as creative collaborators seeking innovative solutions to challenging problems we can’t solve on our own in little boxes of the job we do. I want the full creative human heart to show up ready for the important work of becoming our better selves, our better teams, our better organizations, and our better society.

I’m happy for any feedback you have on this idea and if you’ve found success with this in your classrooms or meetings.

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