You Think You’re So Smart: Theories of Hierarchical Competence

I have a few key assumptions and theories that I have used in my work and research, and I just realized that I need to get some of them public, for various reasons.  This is one of those:

Imagine you have just stepped off the plane into a country where everyone and everything looks different than you look and the place you call home.  You’re used to clean; This place is dirty. You are used to prosperity; this place is poor and struggling.  You begin walking across town looking for a bite to eat. As you stroll down the streets, you notice that people tend to be staring at you a little longer than you are comfortable with.  How do you view yourself compared to them? Your abilities, your thinking, your understanding of the world?

Okay, how about a different scenario:

You’ve just been promoted. You’ve done well at work, enough to catch the eye of senior management, and when a spot opened up to supervise the team next door, you applied, interviewed and got the promotion. Congratulations! You now have responsibility for the work that you were just doing yourself at 5pm yesterday, as well as the work that 7 other people are doing.

You have some ideas for how things ought to be different, and plan on implementing them as soon as possible, even though not everyone agrees with you. “Why not?”, you say. “I am not a total idiot. After all, of everyone that applied, I got the job, didn’t I? I must have done better, which means I AM better. I am the supervisor of this team.”

Yes Mr/s. supervisor, you have the responsibility, but let me ask you: Are you equal with the other members of your team?

The humanist in most people would lead them to say, “Yes, don’t be silly. Of course I am equal! We are all human.”  But actions are artifacts more telling than words, and if you examine yourself closely, you find that your thoughts lead you down a path of “competence rationalization” based upon the fact that you have something – be it position, title, authority, age, status – that the other person doesn’t, and you have it because you are _______________ (fill in the blank with smarter, better, more knowing) than they are.

I believe everyone has a theory of hierarchical competence:  A persons personal framework from which they attribute competence (smarts, knowledge, skills, Intelligence, capability, perception, etc.) to the relative level of a position or status a person holds. As a person rises “above” others in an organizational setting, so does the assumption or attribution of higher competence rise with it and attend the higher station. For example, if you are “higher” you must be “more competent”, otherwise you wouldn’t have that position, right? This can be seen from the “upward” and “downward” perspectives.

The Upward Perspective: History is permeated with societies that look up to a king, queen, president or some sort of ruler for the answers to life’s problems. Think of it as the “God incarnate” view of individuals in high power or simply the assumption that they’ve “made it” because they “have it”. In other words, a lot of people assume that someone who is “higher” than them in some structure or pecking order, also knows more or has a higher degree of competence, thus the higher position. Got it? They are more powerful because they deserve or have earned through their attributes a more powerful status.

“Wait a minute!”, you say. “I don’t think that way. I work for a bunch of idiots! I could easily do their job.”

Here is where it gets tricky: It works in reverse as well, and applies to one’s self and not just to others.  Let me give you an example.

The Downward Perspective: No matter how egalitarian you are, how equal you feel you might be with others of the human race, when you attain a position or level of status, perceived to be “higher” than another, there creeps into the dark recesses of the mind the notion that you “know more” (and for some people it just jumps right out front and screams, “look at me!”). In other words, there is a boost of confidence, a spring in the step, a muffled threat of hubris and the confrontation with the nice you that you might actually know more than “they do”, because… well, look at you: you are “higher”. They’re not.

Now, we deal with this situation daily from both perspectives, upward and downward.  We give it when we find ourselves “up”, and take it when we find ourselves “down”.  And it’s easy to do, because we’ve been socialized into that sort of competitive relation to others.

Bertrand Russell indicated that,

“Passive acceptance of the teacher’s wisdom is easy to most boys and girls. It involves no effort of independent thought, and seems rational because the teacher knows more than his pupils; it is moreover the way to win the favour of the teacher unless he is a very exceptional man. Yet the habit of passive acceptance is a disastrous one in later life. It causes man to seek and to accept a leader, and to accept as a leader whoever is established in that position.”

And think about it from the other way, from the “leader” whose feelings of “Wisdom” come merely from position in the organization, the sense of occupation of a “higher plane” rather than the result of a lifelong process of working towards a mature, developed character. We might refer to this as “active assumption” rather than “passive acceptance” as Russell referred to it.

But it’s especially unnerving for those of us that want to become better leaders, when we find ourselves in an emotional pursuit for something we believe we are right about, or when we feel we may be loosing station by looking bad or powerless from a perceived power challenge. Like when we have an idea, and our team (remember, the one we supervise now? Congrats on that promotion!) doesn’t agree with us, and start to push back.  We start feeling some emotion, the heart rate kicks in, the vessels constrict, a bit of fight or flight surges through our body and tunnel-visions our mind, we defend our idea and why we are right, and then, to justify it, at least in our minds, we find that phrase, “I’m the supervisor” – spoken or not. And there you have it. You’ve just admitted that somewhere, maybe in the front or way in the back of your mind, lies the assumption that you are more competent, that you know more, that your idea is RIGHT, that you are BETTER, because you are the supervisor.

What is your theory of hierarchical competence?  Do you think that competence rises to meet the level of responsibility? Do you think that responsibility is achieved through relevant competence (i.e. competence relevant to the specific responsibility vs. something totally unrelated)? Do you think that achieving a higher level of status, power or authority is made possible because you know more than others or are “better”?

Watch out for this thinking, because it disarms you from below, and dis-empowers you from above.  Extraordinary leaders are able to see opportunities for contributions to be made towards a common, larger objective.  Those who are not so extraordinary tend to see position, power and turf to be defended from others.  Their views on people range from the mediocre view of “resources” and “competitor” to the extraordinary view of “co-creator”, “limitless potential” and “invaluable perspective.”


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