Robert Fuller, former physicist, former president of Oberlin College, “citizen diplomat,” and author, has called rankism “the mother of all -isms.” In other words, racism, sexism, homophobia, and similar attitudes are all manifestations of a more prevalent social phenomenon — the desire of people to use their status and position to dominate others.
Fuller coined the term rankism in his first book on the topic, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society Publishers, 2003), and codified his concept of a dignitarian society — based on the principle that all people deserve to be treated fairly, no matter what their rank — in his second, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006).
These books have generated a large following, but businesspeople have responded with ambivalence; after all, in many companies, the right to abuse rank is seen as one of the perks of a successful career. Fuller argues to the contrary that rankism diminishes both the “somebodies” and the “nobodies” (as he calls people of greater and lesser status), and he proposes that if organizations eliminated their rankism, they would be not just better places to work, but more successful in the bargain. (This despite the fact that many of the “best places to work” in the popular mind, such as Toyota and GE, have often been described as highly rankist workplaces. GE’s appraisal system, for instance, is famously known as “rank and yank,” and Toyota’s sensei system deliberately diminishes the dignity of new engineering recruits.) Bob Fuller recently sat down with strategy+business editors Art Kleiner and Amy Bernstein at our San Francisco offices to discuss the concept of rankism and its implications for society, business, and leadership.
S+B: Just sitting down at the table together, we had a little awkward moment. There are three chairs here, and only one is a swivel chair; and one of us, the person with the greatest presumed rank, seemed to have a claim on the swivel chair. That kind of thing seems so inconsequential…
FULLER: …but also it’s dynamite. Just the fact that we had this awkwardness shows how sensitive everyone is to even the subtlest issues of status differential. We swim in a sea of it. And until you name it, you don’t notice it. In the 1960s, for instance, women were constantly experiencing indignities, both personal and institutional. Then they gave it a name: sexism. And through the power of naming it, feminists broke its hold on society.
S+B: And now, in writing about rankism, you’re naming something that you say is still more pervasive. How do you define rankism?
FULLER: Rankism is abuse of the power inherent in rank. I use the term to describe a broad set of practices and attitudes, found in both social and organizational hierarchies, that encompasses racism, sexism, McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, ableism, homophobia, ageism, classism — and indeed any kind of domination wherein “somebodies” use their position to demean and exploit “nobodies” (who have lower status). Rank in itself is not necessarily a problem. It’s crucial to recognize that some people legitimately have more authority or status than others, and differences in rank merely reflect this fact. But the abuse of rank, which is rampant in our culture, is the source of an immense amount of unacknowledged and unnecessary suffering and organizational dysfunction.
S+B: For example?
FULLER: The bullying that goes on in many organizations, where bosses demean the people who report to them, simply because they can; the differentials in pay and status between the headquarters executives back in the “home country” and the executives who are just as capable in some of the far-flung places or functions; and the denigration of people who don’t quite fit in to the organization’s primary way of thinking and acting. Any organization that encourages or tolerates rankism is systematically undermining the creativity and productivity of its own people.