Rank – what is it good for?

Absolutely nothing. Ha! Everybody wants it and the power that comes with it, but when you use it, you lose it.

Rank, that's power invested in you by a role or title. 'Pulling rank' means invoking the power differential between yourself and the person you're pulling rank on, to make them do something you can't get them to do otherwise. But that's what roles and titles are for, right? That's why we hand them to people.

Here's the problem: When you actually do this, when you pull rank on someone and force them to do something against their will, you create resistance and resentment. That will make it harder to get them to do anything next time. Pretty soon you'll find yourself needing to pull rank to get them to even comply with reasonable requests. Soon after they won't even do things for you that they enjoy without you pulling rank. It's a downward spiral that can only end in disaster: disciplinary action, resignation, firing.

And it gets worse: With rank, even simple statements like “I like this idea”, can be misconstrued as “I want you to implement this idea”, reinforced by the rank, not the person, uttering it. So you may pull rank without even knowing or noticing it.

When your find yourself wanting to pull rank, invoke your seniority or ownership of something, to make someone follow your plan, stop yourself. Explore instead what keeps them from following your advice in the first place. If you really are more senior, you should be able to argue your point successfully without intentionally invoking rank. If you can't do this, maybe your idea isn't actually that good and you should at least consider their position thoroughly before discarding it.

When you find something you said accidentally was enforced by your rank, make amends. Go the extra mile to clarify what people should do when you state an opinion and how people can tell it apart from you giving an actual order.

My teasing statement at the beginning isn't true, of course. Rank isn't useless. There are situations where you need to exert power, give a clear order, set a rule or invoke disciplinary action. But today in most industries we rely heavily on people's creativity. Overwriting their ideas and plans with yours simply because you outrank them kills creativity. So be very, very careful with the power invested in you by your rank.

By @cmw@dysfunctional.technology