As I attend more meetings with people above my level I see that many seem to think that not responding to, or acknowledging, people below them is a sign of power. The first few times it happened with me I assumed that people could not hear me, or that it wasn’t clear who I was addressing. But once I started to observe the pattern, I started to realize the deeper things at play. Silence is certainly a luxury you can afford at a higher level, as there are no significant and tangible negative consequences of ignoring people. But should you do it just because you can? What does it say about you and the culture that you’re contributing to? What does it do to the person on the receiving end?
It is often assumed that those in positions of power are entitled to a certain degree of deference. While there’s some merit to that, especially when they bring knowledge, experience, and wisdom to the table, and help maintain order and efficiency in a complex organization, it can sometimes manifest in harmful and counterproductive ways.
Here are some ways it happens - Your message or question addressed to somebody above your level goes unacknowledged, unanswered, and met with silence and poker faces. You’re interrupted or talked over. Your ideas are attributed to other people, those at a perceived higher level than you.
While this behavior may seem innocuous, it can have several real negative, albeit hidden, consequences. It can lead to decreased morale, engagement, and productivity. It can stifle creativity and innovation, which prevents the creation of a meritocratic system. It can induce fear in people which results in a culture of conformity, and a reluctance to challenge the status quo, which in turn leads to lower trust, poor decision-making, and lack of accountability. Perhaps the worst consequence is that it can influence younger leaders in the organization to engage in and perpetuate similar behavioral patterns.
I wonder if this behavior is more common in men, given the bigger role ego plays in men, and the evolutionary need to establish oneself as the alpha in social situations. Regardless of who engages in it, it seems to be a relic of our evolutionary past that is outdated and harmful in the modern world and needs rethinking. To engage in such behavior is more indicative of insecurity than power.
If you find yourself engaging in this behavior, take a step back and consider the impact it is having on others. Seek feedback from your subordinates. This will not only help you grow, but it’ll go a long way towards establishing trust with those you work with. It helps shift the focus on the collective - the team, the organization - and keeps your ego in check.
- I have also seen people in power be attentive to people’s ideas, no matter where they come from, and be receptive to feedback, and it’s beautiful. It radiates self-confidence and self-assuredness in ways that words can’t.
- After writing this post, it occurred to me that it’s perhaps easier to engage in this behavior over video calls than in person since it’s unclear who something is addressed to, and who somebody is looking at while speaking.