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The Hidden Hierarchy

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

The other day I read “How to Handle the ‘Cool' Kids” by Smart Class Room Management and this line struck me.

Maybe you’ve noticed it too. Otherwise intelligent adults falling blindly under the spell of certain students. So much so that it interferes with their ability to be an effective teacher.

The rapt attentiveness. The mimicking body language. The fawning and trying to be cool too. The second and third (and fourth) chances.

Nothing is more hurtful to the rest of the class. Nothing makes students more resentful and less trusting than the teacher who obviously likes some students better than others.

It’s a morale killer of the highest order.

When I was in grad school I interned at a treatment center with a lot of infighting. No matter what the leadership tried to do, the infighting, the bickering, the backstabbing continued. No amount of vision casting by leadership or meetings with HR helped.

At the time I hadn’t understood why my coworkers were anxious and irritable all the time, but the quote above finally makes sense of my experience at that treatment center. The problem was favoritism. In any organization there is a hierarchy. Leadership at the top, management in the middle, and workers at the bottom. Most people are actually okay with this hierarchy when it’s fair. Most people actually like the structure that hierarchy offers, provided there are enough opportunities to move up. These hierarchies have clear rules and metrics.

But in the place I interned, there was a hidden hierarchy - a favoritism hierarchy. See the boss had a second job running another treatment center. If he liked you he’d pull you aside, take you to dinner, introduce you to other gurus, and basically treat you like you were in the inner circle.

And that was causing all of this problems.

It changed the entire dynamics of the place. Because the hidden hierarchy was based on favoritism everyone competed for his attention - which led to infighting.

And it got worse.

Say you didn’t care about getting hired at his treatment center, it didn’t matter. The hidden hierarchy still existed and you still felt it. You didn’t escape the favoritism hierarchy by not caring, you were just on the bottom. You could opt out of the competition for the second job, but you couldn’t opt out of the hierarchy.

So what happened? I don’t know. I graduated and moved on. As far as I can tell the treatment center is still there in central Arkansas, but the staff turnover is pretty high.

Okay, so why are we talking about this? I'm pointing this out because it gives us clarity on why some organizations become dysfunctional. For me realizing this was very clarifying and comforting. I wasn't crazy for feeling anxious and my coworkers weren't bad for infighting. There was a hidden system that was causing the behavior. For me, being able to see the system lowers my anxiety and give me clarity on why that place felt so anxious.

And most of all, it helps me to know what I'll do differently. Of course, I'll have my favorite people to work with, but if I'm leading a team I'll work really hard to hold everyone to the same standards, especially my favorites. Because no one likes to feel like they're on the bottom.


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I just interned at a place in Searcy, AR that functioned very much like this, so much so that it made me wonder if it was the same place. Thank you for writing your experience and being a voice towards healthy leadership and the need for inclusivity.

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What a great article! Simply putting words to our experience of what is going on in an organization can help us feel less anxious. Thanks for this!

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