Compliments of id-iom via Flickr

“An unheralded, unnamed revolution is unfolding in our midst. Everywhere, people are becoming less willing to put up with disrespect.” (Fuller, 2003).

In his book “Sombodies and Nobodies” Fuller (a former college president) explains that power differentials are not  evil  per se–  rather, it’s how incumbents wield their position that results in oppression or in equality. The problem arises when people “pull rank” – when they use power to put someone in their place. “Rankism” is treating people in an unequal fashion; it’s when managers view employees as containable objects.

Employees are unhappy when the idea that their supervisor is in charge has gone to his/her head; this notion is especially salient for controllers, who operate from the mindset that others are continually trying to cheat them (and, who wish to keep direct reports in a perpetual childlike status). Fuller explains:

“The trouble is that rank counts twice. No sooner is rank assigned than holders of high rank can use their newfound power to aggrandize themselves at the expense of those at lower ranks. Although some exercise their rank properly – within their area of competence and in a way that respects the dignity of those under their authority – others do not.”

Dominance relegates persons to nobodies. This behavior has a cascading effect that ripples throughout the organization. People will imitate the manager because they think it’s a:

  1. Way to get head;
  2. Way of nursing their wounds through displacement;
  3. Covert way to manifest  jealousy (which we see mirrored in children’s stories: e.g., the evil queen using her position to destroy another person); 
  4. Means to mask insecurity. Julie Im (a former graduate student), explains: “Sometimes management  in order to hide their own inabilities will have a standoffish manner and an attitude of superiority so they become unapproachable.”

Dealing with individuals as equals takes work, and the diligence of a manager who makes an effort to improve relationships. For some, keeping people in a box is so much more convenient. Note however that just because workers don’t say anything, doesn’t mean they don’t see everything – obedience is not loyalty[i].

If what you continually expect at work is a spanking, then there’s something seriously wrong.The goliaths of this world exist because no one challenges their dominance – and, because people don’t push back against oppression.

Below are some strategies to bridge the somebody/nobody divide:

  1. Be an ambassador for yourself. If enough people rise up in indignation, social systems will change by force. You can remain a crumpled mass, or you can go on the offensive. Fuller describes “psycho-techtonic shifts” that occur when bullied employees reach a critical mass: “Oppression is the muse of rebellion. Once we have identified a misuse of power and given it a name, we have repeatedly succeeded in shifting abusers to the defensive and then reducing their numbers.”
  2. If you’re a manager, try to get an honest glimpse of what employees experience on a daily basis. When leaders are solely referential they’re asking for trouble. The show Undercover Boss demonstrates how surveillance can be accomplished in an unobtrusive fashion. As Fuller (2003) argues: “Taking a turn as a nobody can be a somebody’s salvation.”
  3. Turn the tables. Until you confront the behemoth it will continue to run roughshod. Tales of how employees got their supervisors fired may provide just the impetus to  confront an abusive situation head on. [This strategy can be applied to any individual whose sole mission it is to inflict suffering another people, and not simply supervisors]. In a recent foreclosure debacle, homeowners turned the tables on a bank when they showed up with a sheriff to confiscate property. Activism is an effective way to bring attention to a cause.

One of the most salient points of rankism concerns the impact of dignity robbed on the bottom line. Companies in profit mode would be well advised to practice the Platinum Rule:® Treat other people as they wish to be treated.

[i] Harvey Hornstein

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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