Here is an excerpt from an article written by David Weinberger for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
* * *
This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.
It took me a couple of years after I left the academic world and went into the business against my will (long story, not interesting) to realize how much I hated one particular aspect of my old life: The academics I had been hanging out with seemed to spend every minute of their life with one another trying to show that they were the big dog in the room. I’m certain this was worse because I was in philosophy where there is no objective measure of truth and so few external markers of success. So, you are constantly being challenged to show that your ideas are unique and uniquely valuable. This resulted in a typical form of conversation that accepts what was just said as obvious and that then shows how your own thinking is far more profound: “Well, yes of course that’s right, but only if one fails to notice that ____.”
This perpetual jockeying for position — and I admit that I may be remembering it as more prevalent than it was — was exhausting. It resulted in a hierarchy, which for an open field of thought like philosophy is generally not helpful. Worse, it created a hierarchy about which no one agreed. It was the worst of all possible worlds, as Leibniz would not have said. (Surely you’ve read Leibniz’s Theodicy? No? Well, then I win!)
The same positioning and one-upmanship happens in virtually every business meeting I’ve been to, although not nearly as perniciously. There may be something natural and inevitable about it. But, this struggle to be perceived as sitting on the highest branch serves no good purpose. The meeting is being held to advance some shared goal, but the snippiness and posing only advance individuals’ interests in their own status.
This is why I was so impressed with a working meeting I attended at West Point a few years ago. Lt. Col. Tony Burgess, Lt. Col. Nate Allen, and others were meeting with the group that created CompanyCommand.com. The range of ranks went from cadet to pretty damn senior. And yet this was one of the most informal, comfortable, productive business meetings I’d been in. It was respectful up and down, but also relaxed, funny, and — most of all — with a mutual humility shorn of attempts to advance one’s social standing.
And it seemed clear to me why the West Point meeting worked so well: the social rank of each member was literally on his sleeve. They didn’t have to work at it because the metadata about their position was attached with thread and needle. That’s way more obvious than having to read someone’s rank by interpreting how they’re leaning back in their chair or smirking whenever the new guy talks. With one’s position so obvious, you don’t have to waste time trying to establish it by always saying something smart or cutting.
If it is the case that humans, at least in our culture, are going to try to define themselves within a social hierarchy, establishing those relationships clearly and explicitly can shake a lot of the posing, posturing, self-inflation, and other-deflation out of the relationships. As I saw at West Point, it can enable more equality as well, for rank becomes a position in hierarchy governed not by social climbing, but by a common goal and mutual respect.
* * *
David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His latest book is Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books, 2007).