Note: in this article I refer to a hypothetical senior person that could either be a man or a woman; however, for readability's sake, I refer to this hypothetical person always as he or him. In the text below, when I write he or him, please read he/she and him/her.
I've been thinking about vertical relationships in corporate hierarchies; actually, my thoughts could apply to any vertical relationship: teacher-student, parent-son, senior-junior... I has come to my attention that the common understanding is that, once someone gets to the upper position, he earns the right to be right. Think of the following scenario:
- How dare you challenge him? He is an executive director and you're just an analyst.
- Does it mean he is always right?
- It clearly means he's got more experience than you.
- Well, if he is so experienced he should be able to prove me wrong quite easily, so what's the matter? He makes clear he's the smart one here and I learn something new.
- He doesn't need to prove anything, just shut up and do as you're told.
Sounds familiar? This is what I refer to as the right to be right. Somehow, it has been instilled in our minds that once one achieves a position of seniority that means credibility is granted and no explanations are needed. It's almost as if the person becomes more important than the argument itself.
What is funny about it is that, at the same time that this idea is rammed down our throats (by our teachers, our bosses, our parents...), we are told that we should never rest in our laurels, that we should always welcome new ideas, that in order to keep learning we should keep challenging ourselves... Do you guys see the conflict as well as I see it?
It would be much different if, instead of earning the right to be right, we acquired the obligation to be challenged. The more senior a position the more responsibility it implies, so the more we want to be sure the person is fit for the role. So constant challenge is actually good for the organisation: if the manager responds positively it creates massive trust from the team, and if it doesn't it becomes clear a new person is needed.
Why does corporate culture condemn bottom-to-top challenges so much then? Isn't there too much at stake to simply assume that senior means right? Three reasons come to mind. First, because sometimes battlefield promotions are needed and, although the person is not good enough for the role, there's no one better available. Second, because in environments hyper-charged with ambition (and large corporations usually are) encouraging challenge could lead to aggressive challengers and destroy team-work. And third, because managers face a conflict of interest when encouraging challenge: it could easily expose their weaknesses.
However, I think these risks are usually overstated, and the current world needs more bottom-to-top challenge, not less. We need to live more out of our demonstrable talent and less out of implied abilities. Let's play the game.