In our daily life, we are totally immersed in a social context that responds to a variety of stimuli and relationships. Living or working in a group project can act as a multiplier for these forces, and impact our behaviour and emotions at the deepest possible level. Why does a meeting wait until Mr. Green arrives, even if he is late? And why does the comment by Mrs. White remain unnoticed and unwritten on the flipchart or in the minutes? Why do we feel nervous and anxious to speak our mind when specific people are present?
A very powerful, and always present, social dynamic has been unveiled and identified by Arnold Mindell, an American therapist and teacher, founder of process oriented psychology, also called process work. It concerns rank and privilege, terms that we can find unattractive and even repellent as we reject the idea of hierarchical society and strive towards equality and equity. But being naive about the issue of rank can cost us a great deal of frustration, and end up in destructive conflicts.
Mindell defines privilege as an option that is available to us, i.e. the possibility to make a choice based on our free will. Every time we choose something, we exercise an option and take advantage of our privilege to do so. Consequently, rank is defined as the sum of privileges we have in a given context. The more options we have, the higher our rank. Having (or gaining) a high rank is often exciting or tempting, while falling to a low rank can be very frustrating and depressing.
According to Mindell, rank itself is the sum of many factors that derive from our birth, social status, nationality, personal talent, psychological stability, spiritual connection, and more. Some aspects are more evident than others, but nonetheless, all relate to making us what we are today. Some are evolutionary and can be modified over time. Others are unchangeable and can only be accepted as a given fact.
Being entirely contextual, our rank varies (sometimes dramatically) according to the social conditions that surround us in any given time and place. Since we are inherently designed as social creatures, we are completely adjusted to shifting place (or rank) when the conditions change, to the point that we are normally unaware of this powerful dynamic.
In our efforts towards creating long lasting, healthy and nourishing communities, we must be aware and conscious of rank issues, so that we help ourselves and our partners to correctly interpret tensions, and prevent potential conflicts.
Communities usually strive to be egalitarian, a high value for many people. However, if this value leads us to ignore that rank plays a role in all human relationships, it can make things worse and not better. Making good use of your personal rank is a great gift to your group, and ultimately to yourself. Accumulated, unexpressed tensions boil down to anger, resentment and bitterness that can, and historically did, fuel attacks and even revolutions. Sadly, history is not a good teacher and drama repeats itself.
Understanding rank and its effects is like wearing a new pair of glasses that suddenly will define the contour of foggy, unclear and uncomfortable frictions. It certainly is not the only dynamic at play in social settings, but it underpins any interaction between humans. Rank’s importance cannot be ignored or underestimated.
If rank is not a taboo but rather something that the community has agreed to speak about, then it can be dealt with consciously. Of course, a person living for many years in the community and being in a responsible position will be more influential than a person that just joined. Reflecting this and offering chances to change rank (i.e. through taking on responsibilities), rather than closing one’s eyes about rank issues, will contribute to a more egalitarian society.
Leadership is a closely related issue that is often denied in egalitarian communities. Even if it is not defined, it will happen. There are people that say “Yes, we can!” and start doing it, and others that do not take this role of being an initiator. It can be very relieving if these implicit roles are made explicit. People who are explicitly assigned roles can receive clear feedback on their work. A role can be withdrawn if the people filling it do not work for the best of the community. Informal leadership roles are much more difficult to deal with.
In some cases, it just makes sense to ask the most competent and experienced person to take leadership and make decisions that do not need to be discussed with a group. Imagine building a house without an architect or construction supervisor; it will probably not result in a very stable or even visually appealing structure.
Taking over a leadership role should be seen as a service to the group. A good leader is always a servant for the values and members of the group. He or she will take into account the capacities of the group members and assign tasks according to their competences and potential. Such a leader will see it as her or his responsibility to create a situation that selects roles where everyone can live their full potential.
It is important to give new and less experienced members the possibility to develop their leadership skills and to gain rank through taking on responsibility.
Forming teams with both more and less experienced people, or teams with professionals and people that know the community issues well, is a good way to introduce people and empower them into powerful roles.
The goal of many communities is to create a “group of all leaders”.
This is not a hierarchical group that only a few leaders hold. It is not an unstructured egalitarian being, but rather an organism, where everyone is in their right place and takes responsibility and leadership for issues that are important for them and for which they have competence. Having a leadership position on one issue makes it much easier to accept that others have the lead in other areas.