Rank, Power and Privilege

Issues of power and privilege are often invisible to people who have higher rank, but are more visible to people with lower rank. As facilitators we can move groups towards understanding and effectiveness when we can see the dynamics of rank.

What is Rank

Rank is the sum of our power and privilege that arises from social, psychological, contextual, spiritual or cultural norms. Whether conscious or unconscious, earned or inherited, rank determines much of our communication behavior.

Types of Rank

Social Rank

Social rank is based on the values, biases and prejudice of the mainstream, dominant culture and comes with privileges and more opportunities in life. Social rank is based on factors like economic class, race, gender, nationality, age, sexual orientation, culture, education, religion, health, physical ability, physical appearance, etc.

Examples of social rank include: doctors get more respect than many other professions, a PhD from a western country can have more prestige than a PhD from a developing nation, and male leaders often have more opportunities than female leaders. People with lighter skin are less likely to be arrested or incarcerated for similar behavior. People with higher rank usually have greater access to resources, such as education, loans, housing, and health care. Systemic oppression intentionally ensures that members of the dominant group have advantages while members of marginalized groups incur disadvantages. 

Psychological or Spiritual Rank

People with high psychological rank have a range of internal resources, such as emotional intelligence and the ability to empathize with others. They have a greater personal comfort with conflict, challenges, and emotional stress. Psychological rank often means higher self-esteem. 

People who have the courage to take a leadership role in transforming society or their organization often have high psychological rank. This capacity arises from many factors including having a loving, supportive family and taking time for self-reflection or inner work. People with high psychological rank have often survived challenging situations and come out stronger, with more compassion, awareness, and self-knowledge.

When people have a sense of purpose, meaning, and connection to a higher power, they often have spiritual rank. Some people have an innate sense of spiritual rank from birth, while others gain spiritual rank as the result of spiritual practice or learning that arises from difficult life circumstances. Spiritual rank is rooted in values of care and connection. If we have spiritual rank, we recognize the spiritual truth that we are equals and the political reality that we are not.

Contextual Rank

Our sense of power and privilege changes according to the context. For example, we accumulate social capital based on our relationships, experience, and previous interactions.  We can have structural power or positional power based on institutional hierarchy. For example, an executive may have a lot of power at work, but at home, their partner may have more power to make family decisions. Or someone is highly regarded professionally, may feel insecure about the way she looks, hopeless about her relationships or very critical of herself. 

In their native country, people can speak the language and understand nonverbal signals, and therefore have a sense of well being and ease. If they speak English, they have more confidence in international settings because they can participate in meaningful exchanges. However, if they cannot speak English well, they may feel discomfort, withhold their participation or see themselves as inferior.

Rank and Signals

Rank often shows up in mixed messages or ‘double signals’ which can inadvertently disempower others. Many of the signals associated with rank are unconscious, but there are many visible ways we can recognize the signals of higher or lower rank.

Signals of higher rank:

  • Convey limited availability. You determine who is included, the time, place, and duration of interactions. You don’t wait for people; they wait for you.
  • Communicate easily. You have the freedom to speak or not to speak, and tend to initiate or guide the conversation. You dominate the conversation and don’t understand why others don’t speak up.
  • Assume that others are at fault. When problems arise, you blame others and suggest that they (not you) need to change.
  • Give support. When it comes to support, you tend to believe others need to receive support, whereas your role is to give support.
  • Expect adherence to your communication style. You determine how communication takes place and expect others to join you in your communication style. You expect people to comply with your pronunciation, grammar, pace, and volume.
  • Make direct eye contact. You can easily look others in the eye without feeling nervous or apologetic.
  • Focus on logic and goals. You tend to overlook others’ feelings and needs. The more rank you have, the less likely you are to empathize with people with less rank.
  • Convey confidence and comfort. In meetings, you tend to sit erectly or laid back. Even when the group is in intense conflict, your body language conveys confidence and that you’re comfortable navigating challenges.
  • Believe in meritocracy. If you believe you achieved your rank through hard work, you are less likely to notice how the system benefits some groups and penalizes others.
  • Take things lightly. You can joke, make fun of others, or make light of problems with little awareness that others may be offended.

Signals of lower rank:

  • Notice Rank: You experience the impact of rank more acutely.
  • Convey a sense of less-than. You may feel like a second-class citizen in social situations or at work. You notice that others overlook you or do not see you as an equal but may feel helpless to do anything about it.
  • Take things personally. You may have low self-esteem, believe you are inferior, or tell yourself that you are not good enough.
  • Adapt your behavior. You tend to change your behavior rather than ask others to change theirs.
  • Accommodate others. You may say ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no’ while looking down or turning away.
  • Praise others. You tend to give compliments and try to please people but deflect any praise that is directed toward you.
  • Second-guess yourself. You tend to feel afraid or think things over repeatedly before speaking up and then wish you’d said it differently.
  • Internalize your anger. You may be outraged by inequities, but keep your feelings inside because others won’t understand why you are suffering.
  • Struggle to communicate. You may find it difficult to express your own viewpoint, take a stand, or explain yourself clearly.
  • Avoid confrontation. You tend to be afraid, shake or feel tense during confrontations.
  • Take revenge. Rather than suffer in silence, you may want to get back at others or sabotage them indirectly.

How do we shift these dynamics of rank?

How do we become more conscious of our rank and its impact on others?

How do we use whatever rank we have for the benefit of all? 

We can use our rank to empower or disempower people; to eradicate or reinforce oppression. 

Disempowering or life-alienating use of rank results in three likely responses:

  • Rebellion
    • Resentment, fighting, grievances, positioning, sabotage, retribution,
  • Submission
    • Compliance, compromise, silence, obedience, loss of creativity, acquiescence
  • Flight
    • Freezing, retreat, withdrawal, transference, attrition, disappearance, shutting down, going silent 

In contrast, rank can be used to serve life and empower people at all levels by creating opportunities for the flow of new information, ideas and solutions. Curiosity about marginalized voices can lead to rigorous exploration of ideas. When we cultivate awareness of rank, we move toward shared leadership and become more open, collaborative and productive.  People at all levels learn to speak truth to power, initiate change and take action. 

“If you use rank consciously, it’s medicine. Otherwise, it’s poison.” ~Arnold Mindell, Ph. D.

Ways to Leverage Higher Rank in Service to All

How do you ensure equitable access to resources and opportunities for all? How do you support cross-cultural empathy and awareness? There are many ways to create an environment where everyone feels respected, engaged, and valued.

  • Use your voice to interrupt oppression rather than drowning out other voices
  • Ask those who speak often to create space for amplifying othered voices 
  • Get feedback about how your rank, power, and privilege impact others
  • Mentor and invest in people who historically experience systemic oppression
  • Share vulnerably rather than expecting others to do all the emotional labor 
  • Stop denying inequities and name how your rank might impact group dynamics
  • Face your collusion and confront how you benefit from racism and sexism
  • Acknowledge your own limitations, ask for support and take responsibility for your behavior
  • Relinquish some of your power by centering the needs of people from the margins
  • Cultivate a genuine desire to serve and contribute, to foster greater inclusion, empowerment and collaboration

Ways for people with lower rank to support change

  • Unpack internalized oppression, honor your needs, and reclaim your humanity
  • Create systems of mutual support both within and outside the group or team
  • Get the empathy support you need to name and challenge microaggressions  
  • Call out erasure and set boundaries when educating people from the dominant culture
  • Protect your health by asking people with rank to do their own work 
  • Unleash your creativity and do your work with integrity and passion
  • Slow down, take perspective, invoke strong thoughtful leadership
  • Push back against systemic oppression and take action in solidarity across differences
  • Tear down systems that only benefit the dominant class
  • Go beyond symbolic changes and support structural systemic change

Everyone has some rank, power and privilege. Whether we have significant advantages or face daunting obstacles, we can collaborate to create new systems that go beyond honoring diversity, equity and inclusion, to benefit the whole.

By Kanya Likanasudh, Martha Lasley and Dian Killian

Adapted from the work of Arnold Mindell, Stephen Schuitevoerderh, Emetchi, and Gill Emslie.

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