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The Competence Hierarchy That Holds Organisations Back

The competence hierarchy does not reflect the hierarchy of titles, and that's often the cause of conflict, ego, and stagnation.

How? Here are some examples.

Picture the scenario: an expert in a field is not invited to an event organised by people with less expertise in the related topic. Why? Because the event organisers hold senior titles, while the expert has a superior level of knowledge compared to them that would have been easily exposed.

Another typical example happens with leaders and managers when employees from lower ranks have better ideas or knowledge, and the leader or manager feels threatened by it.

We call it ego, but the competence hierarchy triggers the ego to get defensive.

Other examples are; when you smashed that job interview but were way too strong for the boss and you don't get hired or when a person in a higher position gets nasty with you because you have pointed out something they should do but are not doing.

Make no mistake, it is all related to competence hierarchy.

The animal kingdom, societies, organisations, and even family members organise themselves in hierarchies. Hierarchy of age to demand respect. The hierarchy of money creates the class system in society and the hierarchy of roles in organisations, so we know who the decision-makers are and who we report to.

Hierarchy is necessary to keep us structured and organised. The problem starts when a member threatens the one above. We know the 1st law from the book, The 48 Laws of Power, right? Never Outshine The Master because you will be destroyed.

We have seen this millions of times in organisations: dare to say something that challenges your boss' competence, and you are done. So we keep quiet, tiptoe around topics, and even if we know that the boss is wrong, we won't challenge it because we know better than poking the competence bear. We would rather watch the company lose millions on a deal or be taken to tribunal due to unlawful practices.

But here is the thing. The competence hierarchy is a very useful one! We could rearrange compensation, reward, and benefit structures and pay people based on their competence.

It would help address the need to grow without promotion. Imagine being the best waiter on the team yet earning the same as the worst one. The only way to stand out is to step up on the career ladder whether you want to or not. Being paid and looked at the same way as the worst ones insults competence.

It would also provide experts with the well-deserved recognition often ignored by organisational hierarchy. Remember, senior leaders are rarely experts in their field. Why? Because experts value knowledge and competence, not titles. They invest their energy in deepening their expertise whilst senior leaders focus on climbing the corporate ladder. We need both because senior leaders can implement what experts advise them.

You might say, no, we cannot do that because it is unfair. Let me remind you that you are very happy to look for the most competent doctor, plumber or teacher for your kid. Why? They charge you double than the ones with lower levels of competence within the same field.

It is time that we recognise the competence hierarchy in organisations instead of seeing it as a threat to our position and ego. Imagine a senior HR leader refusing to invite an expert who could help solve challenges in her organisation to protect her perceived (by outsiders) level of competence. She chose herself, not her people.

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