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Understanding The Effect Of Human Hierarchies

Big Think Edge | November 29, 2018

 Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky admits that when you’re on the bottom of a hierarchy, “it sucks whether you are a baboon or a human.” Sapolsky suggests that as a business leader, it’s important to recognize the psychological effects of being trapped in a position from which there’s no hope of escape. Understanding this can be invaluable as you strive to keep your team motivated. Sapolsky talks about the impact and hazards of hierarchical pressure in his “Understand the Neurobiology of Hierarchy” video for Big Think Edge.

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At the bottom of a stable hierarchy, at the top of an unstable hierarchy

When a company’s power structure is well-established and stable, the stress felt by the person at the bottom can be downright crushing. “What is psychological stress about?” Sapolsky asks. “It’s lack of control, it’s lack of predictability, it’s lack of outlets, it’s lack of social support. And there’s more risk of stress-related diseases. There’s higher levels of stress hormones. There’s more vulnerability to the poster-child psychiatric diseases of stress, which are anxiety and depression.”

Interestingly, Sapolsky’s research also shows that in an unstable hierarchy, the situation is reversed: It’s those on top, the leaders, who have the worst stress. After all, there’s greater jeopardy in every decision a leader makes during a period of instability. Sapolsky points to history for an example: “You would not have wanted to have been the czar of Russia in the winter of 1918 with the peasants writhing at the gates there, kind of thing.”

This means that hierarchical stress can be found at both ends of the ladder, at different times — and we’ll talk about the middle of the hierarchy in a moment.

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We have an escape no baboon has

While other primates who live in hierarchical societies belong to just a single power structure, humans can be members of multiple ranking systems. We can also enjoy a different status in each. Sapolsky says we do “amazing psychological contortions” to award the hierarchies in which we’re highly positioned greater personal importance that the less enjoyable ones. It helps us feel better about ourselves, and can be a great pressure-reliever.

Sapolsky offers an example. Say you have a giant faceless corporation, and you look in on its lowest rung to, “some, like, guy down in the mailroom who by any corporate standards is the lowest ranking guy in that corporation. But this year that person is the captain of the company softball team.” Sapolsky bets that when this employee thinks about his job, he skips right over the 40 baboonish hours he spends a week, and skips straight to, “What really matters is when I’m out with the baseball team.”

What to do with this

To combat the potential numbing effect of hierarchy, do what you can to create a culture of mobility in which those who work for you feel less trapped where they are. Of course, given that you can only have so many vice presidents and such, not everyone can move upward continually, or even at all.

Sapolsky recommends, then, at least working to eliminate what he calls ‘killer setups.” These are extremely common for middle management. A killer setup is the type of situation where “people are stuck with responsibility but not autonomy. Which is to say they don’t decide what happens, but when [it] all goes wrong, it’s their rear end in the sling at that point rather than yours.” The way to avoid inadvertently placing these traps is to give such people more decision-making power over their work, along with greater responsibility for their decisions. They’ll most likely want to justify your faith in them, and you’ll wind up with a result that feels better to you both.

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