The invisible pecking order

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on September 26, 2019 Published on September 26, 2019

As peers, are we all equal or are there unseen dynamics at play?

“Have you observed Rajat raising his voice even when the CEO is present?” asked my colleague. “I don’t see our CEO taking offence either,” I responded. We both couldn’t help but notice the strange new confidence, or call it arrogance, in Rajat. “He has got the CEO’s ears,” agreed some others.

The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became as I feared Rajat’s growing stature would reduce my own influence amongst my peers. It’s quite common to see our bosses leaning towards one or two of their reportees a little more than others. This makes us wary of such peers and we satisfy our jealousy by labelling them chamchas.

Peer relationships are so much fun when we are younger, and there is so much camaraderie, an experience most of us have in our first few jobs. As we climb the ladder, we become more competitive and our peer relationships tend to become one up or down depending on the stakes involved. Some of us can blame the organisation culture, but it’s no secret that in spite of the best culture, we are capable of creating the invisible queue in any team. I can’t say some of us consciously indulge in taking control or it’s just human nature for us to feel we need a bit of dominance over a peer.

The decisions of the leader influence organisations and team dynamics. However, the leader, to a great extent, depends on inputs from his team for some of the critical decisions, and this is where the balance swings. And that is the beginning of the pecking order amongst peers. We all want to be in situations where we can influence outcomes and when our bosses give us that extra listening, we tend to assume we are more critical than others.

Let’s reflect on some of the assumptions that make us feel we are superior to our peers.

The pedigree

At a company I worked for earlier, our boss, during team meetings, used to invoke the institutions his reportees came from. He would say things like, “let’s hear it from the IIM-A or IIT people.” This highlighting of pedigree would immediately divide the team and sort of continue even in his absence to create a hierarchy that perhaps he never intended. Some employees used the edge they seemed to have on the intellectual front to dominate peers.

Role power

Each organisation has a role-driven power centre. In many organisations it could be the CFOs who seem to call the shots in the CEO’s presence or absence. CMOs, CTOs, and CSOs do call the shots in a few organisations, rarely CHROs. Here again, it depends on how the CEOs have allowed that extra power to their reportees.

Recently I met the Head of Delivery from an IT services company who wants to quit as he found on his return to his former employee that the CFO is the new power centre.

Personality at play

Even if the role or pedigrees do not come in the way, individual personalities can unbalance peer relationships. Some of us are naturally aggressive and tend to hijack the limelight. You can observe it in team meetings. Some of my team members used to refuse to go for individual discussions with one of my peers. The famous reason was, “she thinks she is my boss too”!

The favourite

This is an easy one to picture. When we know that we are the favourites, it sort of naturally tends to get to our head. This backing from the boss is something we would like to flaunt with our peers.

It could even be a one-off decision that the boss took in our favour that could tilt the scales.

Conversations on the lines of “his/her team got better hikes or more promotions; their team members work from home all the time” are frequently heard in these circumstances. Some of the peers could be creating that inequality in our mind through some smart initiatives. For example, one of my colleagues would somehow quietly manage a private breakfast with the CEO whenever she was in town and it would make us all wonder where we were in the scheme of things.

Tenure matters

Sometimes, our tenure in the organisation creates a one-up situation in team settings as institutional knowledge gives an edge to people who have been around. Yes, it is directly proportional to the culture of the organisation; nevertheless, it’s common to hear patronising statements from tenured colleagues, such as, “Trust me, I have been around here longer to give you this input.” As reassuring it may sound, one can’t miss the seniority tone in those situations. I once found myself arguing with my CHRO on what I thought was an unflattering increment. She told me that any further increase could take my salary higher than that of a couple of peers who have been around longer. Not only did that tell me about the invisible pecking order but it also affected my mental equilibrium — every time I met those two I saw them as my equals but undeservedly so!

The performer

Who can ignore the performers? Even if nobody notices, the performers will seize the day and ensure that they speak louder than the rest. The only time I felt superior to my peers was when my business results were at their best. I believe that’s the time to have one’s say and influence proceedings.

Personally, I have vested more trust based on circumstances and role-taking individuals. In one of the assignments where we had talent attraction and retention challenges, I backed my CHRO to make decisions in my absence. In another turnaround situation, my reportees complained that the CFO hijacked every decision of theirs in my absence. When we hinted this to our boss, she said: “Can you not all see he is taking on additional responsibilities and delivering on things without follow-ups”!

I can barely imagine a team where everyone feels equal in spite of the boss or the company posters screaming the same. Is it always a battle of first amongst equals?


Kamal Karanth is co-founder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm

Published on September 26, 2019
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