Social Hierarchies and Conflict

hierarchyHumans have a tendency to form hierarchies. Sociologists believe that the formation of hierarchy is a means of establishing social order. Humans seek social order to reduce anxiety, establish self-meaning, and distribute tasks. Hierarchy is observed in lower orders of animals, as well as humans, and consequently is thought to have adaptive advantage in evolution. Often times, conflict arises because roles within hierarchies are misunderstood or ignored.

Hierarchies are formed through a quiet, usually unconscious, struggle as people sort out who will be superiors, inferiors, and equals. If you look closely at any group, you will see a hierarchy. One person has more respect or popularity or responsibility, and is therefore a “superior.”  Others, usually followers or subordinates, are “inferiors.” People of equal rank are “equals.” The terms “superior,” “inferior,” and “equal” should not be confused with worth of a person. In this context they refer simply to social ranking within a group.

Most of the time, hierarchies are benign and useful. However, superiors can abuse their positions. Likewise, inferiors can ineptly not “fit in.” In our culture, individualism and egalitarianism is so highly regarded, and the notion of hierarchy is distasteful. Thus, most people either overlook or deny the existence of hierarchy. This social blindness can be a mistake.

People develop their positions in hierarchy through roles and status. Every individual portrays multiple roles deriving from the various communities in which he participates. A person may be superior in one community, but an inferior in another. The complexity of society requires that each person play many roles, alternating between superior, inferior, or equal, within hours or even minutes of each other.

Within a hierarchy, successful role-playing is determined by how well we deal with our superiors, inferiors and equals. We learn these hierarchical social skills as children. Our parents are our first experience with absolute authority. We play before our parents, bring things to them, and entice them to play hide and seek. In this way, we learn to attract and hold the attention of our first significant audience. However, until we learn how to play other status roles, especially roles with equals, we will relate to superiors and inferiors as we learned to relate to our parents.

Learning other status roles comes from learning manners. Through dress, gesture, speech, and bearing, we indicate to others and to ourselves where we belong or want to belong in our society. All manners are a dramatization of the self, telling others how we want to be regarded and how we regard others. Manners are the daily language of hierarchy, and the absence of manners signifies the absence of social order.

These concepts allow us to consider some causes of conflict. First, conflict arises when people are ignorant of the basic social forces that compel formation of hierarchies. Thus, they do not perceive that a role appropriate in one context or hierarchy is completely inappropriate in another. When people do not enact expected roles, groups act quickly to either force conformity or expel the offender. Conflict can be transformed in these cases when people become conscious of the hierarchies within their lives, and adopt behaviors appropriate to the role of the moment.

Conflict over bad manners arises from the belief one is not really important in the eyes of the transgressor. A faux pas made out of ignorance (and soon corrected) will be readily excused. With a faux pas, the importance of manners as a social bond is not challenged. Likewise, people laugh at a comedian’s vulgarity so long as what they feel important is not threatened, but people become uncomfortable with savage ridicule or continued vulgarity because this conduct endangers the social order upon which manners are based.

Much conflict derives from poor training in status communication. People want to communicate effectively with superiors, inferiors, or equals, but, because of a status difference, often do not know how to do so. An employee may have a difference of opinion with a supervisor, but may not know how to address that person effectively. Similarly, a superior may not have sufficient skills to communicate effectively to subordinates. Likewise, equals may have difficulty expressing concerns or differences with equals. These are all examples of deficient status communication skills. If a person’s social experience precludes open discussion of differences with equals and superiors, he cannot be expected to welcome it. Thus, inability to deal with hierarchical differences leads to conflict avoidance, anger, frustration, shame and guilt.

If you are facing a conflict situation within a work group, discern the underlying hierarchy. What are the roles of each of the members? Who is superior? Who is inferior? Who are equals?  What is expected of each role? Is the individual behavior consistent with the role in the hierarchy? If not, is the individual aware of the dissonance between behavior and role? If not, is the problem one of insufficient skills in status communication or possibly bad manners? If the individual is aware of the dissonance, a power struggle may be occurring.

Douglas E. Noll, Lawyer to Peacemaker

Creator of Negotiation Mastery for the Legal Pro

California Lawyer Magazine, California Attorney of the Year 2012

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