The natural hierarchy

By Greg Ellis

“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

-Benjamin Disraeli, British politician

After many columns of mincing the lofty ideas regularly found in our university newspaper, I thought it would be important to speak of a subject more surmountable than the grand ideas of democracy, special interest or world affairs.

As readers accuse me of pandering to the Haskayne demographic, I can stand firmly to the wind of this controversy. The Haskayne School of Business is a faculty that praises the value of teamwork and group dynamics. Almost all Haskayne courses have some component of group work and I chose to carefully examine the reasoning behind this.

There is an arsenal of justifications for the sheer amount of group work in our faculty. Professors glibly answer my questions with stock answers: “You must learn how to work in teams”… “You will all be working in teams, in your jobs.”After perusing the Saturday careers section of The Globe and Mail my professors collectively seemed right.

Consistently required: must be a team player. It is difficult not to traverse the halls of Scurfield without overhearing an attack on group work–patsies annoyed by others holding them back.

Indeed, blaming others is gratifying. Rather than learning about intricate team dynamics, participants spend most of their time spewing vitriol. Considering myself somewhat familiar with group work, it should be a simple matter to analyze it on its surface.

Each group member rarely steps outside their predetermined role. Like the futility of fighting our own genetics, the roles we play in groups seem established long before we ever assume them.

All groups generally have a de facto leader. He or she takes early and tight reigns of the group. The problem is, without legitimacy or title, other members invariably resent this person. Conversely, all groups seem to have one member who speaks less and simply takes orders, the archetype of deference. This group member often turns out to be the most valuable simply accomplishing the job at hand rather than spending great amounts of time talking about what the group should do or participating in the Shakespearean power struggle.

Our personality traits, particularly the robustness of our egos, determine the roles we take in groups. The problem at the core of university-level group work is that leadership seems relatively difficult with the absence of titles or authority. Authority, particularly in regard to a chain of commands, gives those under that leadership a reason to listen. Hierarchical structures breed compliance which facilitates leadership. Where everyone is on the same level, however, leadership becomes an abortive undertaking susceptible to insurrection. Other members form poisonous alliances, speaking in slanderous tones while the group becomes a series of lost partnerships and aimless goals.

Not one of us, without perjuring ourselves, can say that we have been in a group where we didn’t exchange insulting commentary behind each other’s backs. Begrudging the existence of others seems to strike a chord in all humans, unsuccessfully attempting to increase our own self-worth. We have become the financiers of low self-esteem lending our invective at prime plus one. We excitedly telephone a friend or speak to them in the hall about the horror of our team members much more quickly than we would ever speak about adulation. This seems to squarely place considerable blame on us or more dramatically on human nature itself.

I always wonder what others say about me when I am not in their presence, only because I witness what I say about them when they are not in mine. Part of me wants to imagine that I am particularly culpable of defamatory chatter, hoping others do not engage in it. Most remarkable is how we can deprecate others and then pretend that we enjoy their company while they are there. This trait seems unique to us as social creatures.

Maybe group work has taught me something, be it particularly poignant about myself. Most likely it has, and unfortunately I feel as I should withdraw from the course.

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