Pulling Rank Pulling rank is one of the most common—and most damaging—trust-busters in the workplace.

Some people try to exert influence by using the power of their position or authority. Maybe their egos get in the way. Maybe they delight in the role of bully. Maybe they’re impatient and just want others to do things their way. Maybe they simply lack confidence and are reluctant to entertain the views of others.

Whatever the reasons, pulling rank is never effective in engaging peoples’ heads, hearts, and hopes. In fact, it does just the reverse.

During my years at Campbell Soup Company I worked for two CEOs, Harold Shaub and Gordon McGovern. They were worlds apart in virtually every aspect of leadership.

Harold Shaub was an old school executive whose closest colleagues, even those who had worked with him for more than thirty five years, still called him “Mr.” He clearly preferred surrounding himself with “yes men,” people who blindly followed his orders with no alternatives offered and no questions asked. He seemed to relish the perks of his office, and was none-too-subtle about reminding people that he was the boss.

When Harold Shaub retired, he was replaced in the corner office by Gordon McGovern. Gordon was nearly a direct opposite. He preferred the employee cafeteria over the executive dining room with its silver and china and deferential butlers. Though well-bred and Ivy League educated, Gordon was informal and approachable. He thrived on lively conversation, especially with people who offered opposing views. He was as comfortable chatting with a worker on the plant production line as he was in talking with a member of the board of directors.

In fact, because Gordon was so approachable, he got some of his best ideas from people who operated at several rungs lower on the organization chart. He seemed totally blind to the issues of rank. Though this seemed to annoy some of the Harold Shaub holdovers in the executive suite, it endeared Gordon to nearly everyone else in the company. He was, by far, more effective than his predecessor in bringing out the best in others.

Here’s another example of engaging leadership. Chuck is a family friend, one of my brother’s college classmates. Chuck is relatively small in stature, a steadfastly polite and soft-spoken gentleman. In a crowded room he comes across as the one most likely to teach Sunday School (which, in fact, he does). Chuck is retired General Charles C. Krulak, former Commandant of the United States Marine Corps. In the military, and now in private business, Chuck is known as the kind of leader that people love to follow. Rather than just issuing orders and demanding obedience, he earns respect by listening carefully, by coaching, by encouraging. He engages people’s ingenuity and commitment. He never bullies. He never pulls rank. He gets results.

If you’re tempted to pull rank, remember this simple advice: Drop the Pretense.

Using one’s higher status to compel obedience or obtain privileges is guaranteed to spawn resentment. When a boss pulls rank, people respond more out of compliance than out of commitment. Besides, pulling rank often comes across not as a sign of strength but as a sign of weakness. Pulling rank looks like a last resort, even when used early. After all, the reasoning goes, why would anyone need to pull rank if his viewpoint could stand on its own merits?

Let’s get real. Even though you may have position, title, a reserved parking space, and maybe a bigger desk lamp than the guy next door, you’re really no smarter than most of the people in your organization. You may have “paid your dues,” to get where you are. But that doesn’t mean you have more brain cells.

So drop the pretense. You’re all in this together. And the better you are at exercising influence rather than authority, the better you’ll be at engaging the heads, hearts, and hopes of your colleagues.

Here are five steps to help you Drop the Pretense:

  1. Question your motives. Are you using your position or authority to browbeat people into doing things your way? Are you trying to stifle open discussion? Are you using the leverage of your position just because you can? Do you somehow feel threatened by someone who offers a view difference from yours? If the roles were reversed and someone tried to pull rank on you, how would you feel?
  2. Examine your case. Are there leaks in the case you’re trying to make for adopting your view? Is pulling rank just a way to camouflage those leaks?
  3. Inspect your language. Are you using words like “It’s my way or the highway . . .” or “Remember that I’m the boss . . .”or “Just do what you’re told . . .” or “I thought you liked working here”? These are blatant examples of pulling rank, with bullying thrown in.
  4. Consider the desired outcomes. If mutual purpose and mutual respect are what you really want in your relationships, you’ll realize that pulling rank introduces a tone that’s contrary to mutuality.
  5. Listen with empathy. This means listening to understand, not to judge or rebut. Inquire to discover. Advocate with respect. Pool the meaning by sincerely hearing people out. This reinforces a “we’re all in this together” tone and diminish the temptation to exercise unrighteous dominion by pulling rank.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

Rodger Dean Duncan