Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the quality expert W. Edwards Deming famously blamed the practice of rating and ranking people as a major source of productivity problems. Deming argued that most ratings were statistically invalid, and thus blamed or rewarded people inaccurately for results that didn’t have much to do with their individual efforts; this endemic misperception, he said, led to poor management decisions. But Dr. Fuller isn’t a Demingite; he’s careful to insist that ranking people is fine. So is rewarding them according to merit and performance. The problem, he says, is less tangible; it’s the predatorlike way in which “somebodies” (people ranking high in advantage and social prestige) exploit and overwhelm the “nobodies” who rank lower.
“Emotionally,” says Dr. Fuller, “this kind of abuse of rank leaves the same scars that racism and sexism do.” Among children, he says, rankism is manifested by bullying or cliquish behavior. In business, outrageously high salary gaps between top executives and other employees is one form of rankism; another is the garden-variety form of office politics in which bosses routinely, almost unconsciously, debase subordinates. In Dr. Fuller’s view, these abuses exist not as necessary evils (which is how most of us see them, I suspect), but as deliberate, albeit semiconscious, choices. In other words, those in positions of power don’t mistreat women or people of color because of sexism or racism; they adopt sexism or racism as a convenient way to find someone to mistreat. In the modern workplace, when they can’t do it overtly, they do it subtly; a rolled eye, a quiet but devastating snub, or a dashed expectation at just the right moment.
“When it’s done to you,” Dr. Fuller told a group of students at Mount Holyoke College recently, “your first impulse is to do it to someone else. Preferably the guy who just did it to you. But you don’t dare, because he holds rank over you, so you pass it down the totem pole. It feels better to wait for the moment when we can kick the dog, or beat up our little brother. Yes, most of us have been victimized in some contexts, but sadly, we have also been perpetrators in others.”
Dr. Fuller doesn’t yet have much of a corporate following. His most avid constituency tends to be made up of people on the lower rungs: teenagers, senior citizens, lower-level employees, and especially such much-maligned working groups as postal workers. (“Going postal,” in the Fuller lexicon, is simply an extreme version of the indignation that postal workers feel because of the continual rankism they endure from their own bureaucracy.) “People who are currently taken for nobodies,” he said recently, “are more apt to be open to my message.” Indeed, he conceived of his book after a sharp drop in his own status in the late 1970s. Having left the Oberlin presidency, seeking funding for some independent projects, he found himself suddenly treated as a freeloading supplicant. One day in 1978, his funds exhausted, waiting near a Manhattan pay phone for a promised call that never came, Dr. Fuller realized: “I’m in Nobodyland!”
As you might expect, it wasn’t a simple matter to get Somebodies and Nobodies published. Dr. Fuller spent 10 years gathering rejections, including this one from Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda, a well-known “somebody” in publishing circles: “I’m in favor of rank, just so long as I’m ranked high.” Even now, it’s hard to believe that any book like Somebodies and Nobodies could catch on at the executive ranks of most corporations, where a predatory instinct is often considered a primal source of business success — or else just an ordinary part of daily life.