I often try to categorize behaviors I observe in others in an attempt to understand the patterns of that behavior. My goal is better prediction, so I can get ahead of potential problems or hurdles in order to more effectively manage my relationships with others.

I know that sounded pretty clinical, but really that all just meant “I try to actually think about why people behave the way they do.”

I also draw a lot of connections between observed patterns of behavior and certain results or other behaviors. Today I’m going to write about one such connection I’ve observed.

I’ve worked with a lot of people in my career. I’ve worked in some pretty large corporations and most of my career has been very workforce-focused, so I’ve interacted with an above-average number of people. And I’ve noticed what appears to be a good early indicator of career success.

A lot of people (a disheartening amount, I would say), automatically group everyone employed by the same company into two categories: “people I work with” and “people I work for.” In other words, they class-divide their workforce in their own minds, and treat the two groups as being incredibly distinct, often even adversarial.

(I should note: Though I see this more often in non-managerial employees, the phenomenon absolutely exists in management, in which case the two categories are “people I work with” and “people that work for me.” Just as unhealthy and everything I’m about to write applies to both.)

That’s fundamentally an unhelpful way of looking at the organization of a team, and if you do that (from either side of this imaginary line!) you’re hurting both yourself and your organization. A big early indicator of career success seems to be avoiding this trap.

As soon as you fall into this trap, you’ve put an unnecessary emotional bias into every interaction at work. Organizational hierarchy should exist only as a tool of efficiency, to help solve problems and organize work. It’s not a moral judgement or a relative measure of “worth.” Whether you’re an entry-level employee who sees managers as an unpleasant intrusion into your life, or a manager who sees non-managerial employees as pawns for you to command, you’re up to your ears in a terrible mindset that will rob you of success.

Not only do we all work together and have shared goals, but we aren’t distinct species. Those lines are all made up, and they get plenty blurred as well. As organizational needs change, so may those categories. Even if you don’t consider the relationship adversarial, just thinking of certain co-workers as fundamentally “different” because of their place in the org chart is not the way to succeed.

People who view their co-workers at different managerial levels not as distinct categories but simply as co-workers with a different function do much better in their careers. If you work in the marketing department as an associate, you probably view Jim in IT as just a co-worker with a different job function than you. You should view Sarah, the director of the marketing department, the same way – just a co-worker with a different function than you. If you are Sarah, you should view Steve the marketing associate the same way; not as someone “below” you, but someone who’s job is closely related to yours but different.

What’s strange to me is that the idea that people whose job is to help organize other people would somehow be considered “different” in the first place. This idea is so unusual to me, yet so apparently commonplace, that I started giving serious thought to why the idea seems to be so pervasive, and why people who haven’t even entered the workforce yet seem to have it automatically, so frequently!

Here is my theory: School. Forget about what you do in school, and just think about how it’s organized from a workforce management perspective. In school, there are absolutely two distinct “classes” of people. You have the student body, and the staff. There is no crossover; they are truly distinct. You never have one of your other teachers also sitting as a student in a different class, and no student ever gets “promoted” to teacher mid-way through the school year for good performance. The lines are absolutely rigid.

And of course, they’re often adversarial! Sure, students are ostensibly there to learn and teachers are ostensibly there to teach. But talk to any high school student OR teacher and you’ll hear plenty of stories of conflict. Students try to get over on teachers, teachers try to wrangle students, and the inherent power struggle is a constant, pervasive feature of high school life.

So most people go through years of existing in an environment where there are clear, distinct authority figures who have tons of control over you. Even if you’re a teacher’s pet with no conflict, you’re still viewing teachers as fundamentally “above” you; someone to sidle up to and impress. Your relationship might be adversarial or it might not, but the environment teaches you that in either case it’s not equal. They’re not your peers.

If you go to college, it’s the same scenario, so whether you go to college after high school or don’t, doesn’t matter. What happens is that whenever you’re done school, you’re dumped into the workforce, and you encounter a situation that superficially looks a lot like what you just left.

You see “authority figures,” a small number of elite, usually older, people, and then a larger mass of people under them. This looks a lot like school looked, and since you have plenty of experience there and virtually none in the work force, you automatically start to draw the same conclusions. Since you could never cross the student/staff line, you start by believing you can’t cross the employee/manager line. That those two groups are distinct, that they have totally different goals (not just different functions but serving the same goal), and that they’re probably at least to some degree adversarial.

You learn to view the world by class, in class.

I find that mistake completely understandable, all things considered. But none the less, the people that don’t make that error will do much better.

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