CLUES: What We Can Expect From the Top

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go Hierarchies are difficult to see from the top

go A nudge from below feels like a steamroller

go Higher people assume that everyone wants and needs to be like them

go People at the top are not held accountable

go People on the top have limited perspectives and know little about
lower groups


Hierarchies are difficult to see from the top.

When we are at the top of a hierarchy, we make rules that reflect our own desires, perspectives, and needs, so have little incentive to question the system we create. We are usually unaware of the existence and operating parameters of the hierarchy we dominate, unless there is an obvious structure, such as in a corporation or government.

From the top, we can see that we have more benefits and resources than other groups, but we don’t recognize that it is our hierarchical position that brings us our advantages. We rationalize our privileges with rhetoric, saying that anyone who acts as we act could obtain what we have. Or, we convince ourselves that we earned our positions only because of our own hard work, or we deserve to be where we are because we are in some way superior to others.

People who have spent their lives perched atop many powerful hierarchies might have good intentions. Nonetheless, since they have been groomed to live in the dream world hierarchies create for people at the top, they will have trouble understanding the liabilities of hierarchies — if they can see those hierarchies at all. Their experiences provide them with isolated, narrow, and distorted perspectives.


imageA nudge from below feels like a steamroller

Higher people take challenges to their positions in a hierarchy very seriously. When we are in a higher position, we act quickly and forcefully to confront threats to our perspectives, power, position, and authority. Maintaining the hierarchy between the higher and lower groups is the responsibility of those higher, and we consider it a pressing priority.

When we perceive any shift in position, we need to respond in ways that will reestablish the balance of power. If we continue to feel a threat to our power and authority, we will resort to bigger and more obvious means to restore stability.

When we are lower people in such an interaction, we are surprised when what seems to us a simple difference of opinion or perspective, or a genuinely probing question, looks totally different to a higher person. We become amazed when a “small issue” in a simple problem-solving session suddenly grows into a big deal.

A higher person can react strongly, digging in her heels, acting as if it’s a battle. A higher person, seemingly out of nowhere, “brings out the bigger guns,” showing that he feels picked on, or feels that his worth, power, and authority are being discussed, debated, or threatened.

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Higher people assume that everyone wants and needs to be like them

When we are in higher groups, we feel we have personal characteristics or possessions that are superior to those of lower people, such as education, insight, opinions, lifestyles, religion, technology, and pedigree. As a result, we think everyone else would benefit if they valued what we value and worked toward acquiring what we have.

If other people do not aspire to be like us, we label them as flawed in some way, or feel sorry for them, believing that their perspectives or lifestyles are not as valuable as ours. We might say that they just “don’t have what it takes,” or are unmotivated, naive, not savvy, immoral, or that their ideas or lifestyles are insignificant or irrelevant. We assume that if other people possessed more of the superior qualities of those of us in higher groups, then they would be acting as we act.

Hierarchies allow us to justify forcing our “superior” values and way of life on everyone else. We often say that we’re doing a favor for other people or another society when we do.

We declare that it’s for their own good when we use hierarchical tactics to control and dictate other people’s lives. We espouse the view that when we force our opinions upon others, those in the lower ranks will ultimately learn to appreciate, accept, and benefit from our efforts to help them.


imagePeople at the top are not held accountable

The people at the top are responsible for keeping power and control at the top of the hierarchy. Higher people expect to have the freedom to act without factoring in the needs of lower people. Since we live in hierarchies, we have learned that it is not appropriate to hold the higher groups accountable for the effects of their decisions on lower groups.

The rules of hierarchies specify that lower people implement the higher groups’ decisions without holding higher groups accountable for the effects on lower groups. When we are in lower groups, our role is to keep busy cleaning up after the higher people, picking up the pieces that fall, and making things work, no matter what problems and havoc higher people create.

Even if it takes an inordinate amount of scrambling and contortions to make a round peg fit in a square hole, we are responsible for making the pieces fit. We lower people know that if we can’t overcome the obstacles, we can count on being blamed for the failures.

We are told to practice tolerance for people in higher groups when they are showing little or no regard or tolerance for lower groups. We are supposed to listen to the higher groups’ views and accept their actions as merely differences of opinion. Meanwhile, we watch higher groups use control tactics to keep us down, channel resources to themselves, and ignore, misrepresent, and ridicule our perspectives.


People on the top have limited perspectives and know little about lower groups

imageNo matter where we are in a hierarchy, we focus on the opinions, perspectives, actions, and experiences of people on our level and above. We have little or no incentive to learn about the true needs, lives, and perspectives of lower people. Therefore, we can remain ignorant or ill informed about those on the lower rungs. We have the choice of whether or not to seek out or accept any true information about anyone lower in our hierarchy.

As we move upward in a hierarchy, the sources of “acceptable” information become fewer and more limited in scope. Because we don’t look downward for guidance, we can become very isolated, lonely, and myopic as we stay perched in our lofty positions. Since we have so little accurate information about lower groups, we tend to be uncomfortable around them and may even be afraid of them.

When we are in a higher group, we have the option whether or not to listen to a lower group. We know that our opinions about what the lower group needs will ultimately prevail. We may be sincerely surprised and hurt if lower people don’t appreciate the decisions we make “on their behalf. ”

For additional CLUES on the website, see CLUES - 101, and CLUES - Lower groups.

For additional CLUES and more detailed explanations, see Clueless at the Top.


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