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Eight Ways You Can Stop Rankism

Robert Fuller: If you're patronizing a store or restaurant, avoid the mistake of thinking that because "the customer is king" you can be a tyrant. The majority of servers and clerks are doing their jobs as best they can, often under trying conditions and a great deal of pressure.


1. Recognize that no one is a nobody. There's another "N-word" now and it's "nobody." Parents and teachers who listen, and who do not belittle, are preparing the young to inhabit a dignitarian world.

2. Adopt a "No Nobodies" policy in the workplace and the schools. Make a list of all the forms that "nobodying" takes and see if others will agree to toss them out in favor of a "No Nobodies" policy. More important than a policy, however, is having a plan for dealing with slip-ups. Old habits die hard and how you go about correcting relapses is more important than noble resolutions. Remember, you can't cure rankism with rankism. When somebody "nobodies" someone else, it won't improve things to shame the perpetrator. To make the transition from a rankist environment to a dignitarian one, you have to protect the dignity of perpetrator and victim alike as new habits are established. So, the real meat and potatoes of a "No Nobodies" policy is not the policy itself--adopting it is the easy part--but rather getting people to agree on what's to be done when violations of the policy occur, which they most certainly will. For starters, the person who is nobodied can gently remind the perpetrator how it feels. Doing this periodically in a public forum is a remedy that often suffices to change what is deemed acceptable behavior by the group. Without a safe way to deal with policy transgressions, a "No Nobodies" policy lacks the teeth to make it self-enforcing.

3. Honor your Inner "Nobody" and your Inner "Somebody" alike. If you're "just" you, don't be ashamed of the nobody within. It's actually your genius. Your inner somebody is dependent on it for new ideas, so don't let your somebody put your nobody down. Remind your somebody that despite all the attention it gets, it's a plagiarist and in danger of becoming a stuffed shirt. Our somebodies are all guilty of stealing intellectual property from our nobodies. Likewise, if you disparage your inner somebody, you're trashing your meal ticket. It's best to remember that your somebody and your nobody thrive or starve together. Their proper relationship is like that of the masculine and feminine principles we carry within us--peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. As our internal nobody and somebody make peace and each gets the recognition it deserves, we typically find ourselves better able to extend to others the dignity we're granting ourselves.

4. Break the taboo on rank. If you run an organization, make it safe for everyone to question the rightful role of rank, the authority vested in specific positions, and the prerogatives associated with various ranks. Explain that you do not mean to unleash hostility or incite jealousy, but rather to create fairness, and that this may well take multiple "passes," spread over several years. Transparency, particularly in the form of open budgeting, is a valuable tool for reducing rankism, which thrives in dark places. Freedom to speak up or "blow the whistle" without fear of retaliation is essential to dignitarian organizations. Mutual accountability--everyone to everyone else--is their hallmark.

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5. Understand the roles of others and support equitable compensation. Wherever you find yourself in the ranks, take responsibility for knowing what others do and understanding how their job fits into the whole. Then recognize their contributions and support compensation structures that acknowledge the part they play in fulfilling the organizational mission. There aren't adequate rules yet for determining the monetary worth of one job as compared to another, but clearly rankist self-dealing over the years has produced an excessive gap between richest and poorest that is incompatible with the values of a dignitarian society.

6. Keep your promises to everyone regardless of their power. One way to tell if you are using the somebody-nobody distinction invidiously (as a rationalization for rankist behavior) is to notice to whom you keep your promises. In a post-rankist world, we'd all feel as obliged to keep our promises to those whom we outrank as we do to those who outrank us. If you're not sure you'll keep a promise, don't make it.

7. Recognize that servers are people too. If you're patronizing a store or restaurant, avoid the mistake of thinking that because "the customer is king" you can be a tyrant. The majority of servers and clerks are doing their jobs as best they can, often under trying conditions and a great deal of pressure. If you're a salesperson waiting on a customer whom you find unacceptably rude, you may be able to persuade your boss to back you in refusing service. The halo goes to the server or salesperson who can devise a dialogue that will induce rankist customers to become aware of their own damaging behavior and change their ways.

8. Be aware that rankism begets rankism. If you humiliate those who are abusing rank, they're likely to take it out on their subordinates--perhaps family members--so there will be no net reduction of rankism in the world. If someone insults your dignity, see if you can break the cycle wherein rankism begets rankism. Every situation requires a tailor-made solution and they may not be easy to devise on the spot. Coming up with something after the fact is not in vain. There will almost certainly be a chance to use it on another occasion.

robert fuller

Robert W. Fuller

Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.