Taking care Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

When he was president of Oberlin College, Robert W. Fuller had a superstar and aproblem.

The superstar was a baseballplayer who was hitting .550 on the college’s team. The problemwas that the kid wouldn’t cuthis hair, and the veteran coachwanted everyone’s locks incheck. The 1950s were wayover, and Fuller knew the rulehad to change, so he went tothe coach to figure out how tochange it without making anyone look bad.

“The coach said, ‘My authority will be undercut if I reversemyself, but if you’re willing toorder me to change the rule,then we’ll change it, and I’ll takerefuge in the fact that the president made me do it’ — but hehad suggested it himself,”Fuller says.

Today, Fuller — who coauthored “Dignity for All: How to Create a World WithoutRankism” with Pamela A.Gerloff — focuses on lessonssuch as that one and how aleader can fix problems by usingrank without abusing power.

Smart Business spoke withFuller about how to talk toleaders who abuse power andwhy hierarchies are OK butrankism isn’t.

Create a hierarchy without rankism. Rank differences are not theproblem; we are not equal inour abilities, in our experienceand in our judgment. We’rewildly unequal, and we should-n’t even think we’re going tocreate a level for everybodyand have everybody at thesame rank.

Egalitarianism was tried on amassive scale in communistsocieties, and it was a flop.Abusive rank is the problem.To eliminate rankism, we don’teliminate rank; we try to makereally sure that there is mutualrespect both upward anddownward — especially downward, where it’s a choice.

Upward, there’s no choice; ifyou’re not respectful to yourboss, you’re very apt to loseyour job. But what we’re discovering now in business, andevery walk of life, is thatrespect downward createsesprit de corps, energy, healthand happiness, and it creates amuch more robust, productiveand creative work force.

Great leaders are ones whodo two things: They have agreat vision for their company,and they’re humble — theytreat everyone with respect.And more than that, the CEOcan be a nice fellow, but if hecountenances rankism at all,he’s not doing his job. Greatcompanies have CEOs whodemand all their subordinatestreat their subordinates withdignity. So there’s a surveil-lance job that’s needed.

I remember discovering thisat Oberlin, that it wasn’tenough that I be decent to myvice presidents and provostsand so on. It was importantthat they did the same thing totheir subordinates, and thatmakes for a place that canreally go places because the sabotage that disgruntledemployees can wreak upon acompany is just beyond comprehension.

It ranges from stealing paperclips and pens, all the way upto whispering to customersthat the company is actuallydysfunctional and that theproduct is no good.

Go into cahoots with those causingproblems. Let’s say you discover that there is a bully somewhere in the organization thattakes pleasure in humiliatingsubordinates. You go to thatperson, and you do not bullythem — you do not try to correct his behavior by doing tohim what he is doing to others.

You ask him what the troubleis — in other words, you haveto play a little bit of psychia-

trist. You try to correct hisbehavior while telling him it’sunacceptable; you try to tellhim in a way that preserves hisdignity, that’s the key.

You cannot eliminate rankismwith rankism. You don’t eliminate the amount of rankism inthe universe by doing it thatway — you’d leave peoplesmarting, and they look for achance to get even with you,and they become your enemy,whereas up to that point, theykind of liked the president, nowyou’re their enemy.

You have to do it in a way thatdoesn’t involve more rankism,and that always involves askingthem and exploring the reasons.And do you know what the reasons always are, that someonewas rankist to them in the past.

It’s identical to why childabusers very often wereabused when they were children; so, too, rankists had afather or a mother who was abully. So you talk to themabout that behavior.

You go into cahoots with theoffender. You do it as a problem-solving thing rather than as, ‘I’mright, I am morally superior toyou, and you’re going to do itmy way.’ Come up with a workable solution here, and you cantry finding a solution in different contexts. It can be one onone, you can broaden it to otherpeople, but you’re in problem-solving mode, you’re not in dictating mode.

Bring people in to wear down theagitator. My feeling is, 99 percent of the time, you can solve these problems really quickly.

Every once in awhile, it’sreally hard, and you can’t finda solution, and then what youdo is you say, ‘We have notfound a solution yet, we’re stilllooking, we’ve broadened thecircle to keep looking, buteverybody can get involved’ —and the minute you’veinvolved everybody, you’veactually come up with amethodological solution.

You don’t have the answeryet, but you have a methodology that will find one because,gradually, you’ll wear downthe guys who are resistingsome change or resisting giving up a perk that they do notdeserve that in itself constitutes an indignity for everyone else.

HOW TO REACH: Robert W. Fuller, www.breakingranks.net