Status is powerful. Once a team gets working, any initial willingness to communicate can go right out the window if nobody feels comfortable disagreeing with the VP at the end of the table, or the new junior salesperson who might have something to say.
But our positions within a company are actually a combination of rank and status. Your job title and the responsibilities that go with it comprise your rank. But your status is given to you by other people, or taken away by other people (either to your face or behind your back). Most of the time, people with a high rank are granted a great deal of status by coworkers—that’s the nature of a corporate ladder.
Status also depends on competence, communication, work ethic, leadership, and personal relationships, just to name a few variables. When team members all hold different ranks as well as differing statuses, it’s easy for it to collapse under the weight of all the ensuing deference to hierarchy. To succeed, both rank and status must be leveled—at least for specific, strategic periods.
How do you do that? This card game can help.
First, grab a normal deck of 52 playing cards. Divide it in half so you’re working with only two suits: one red suit (hearts or diamonds), and one black suit (spades or clubs). Shuffle these cards.
Then assemble a team of six to 10 people. Everybody in the group selects one card from the deck, keeping it to themselves. At this point no one knows what their card means. Put the card face down, to the side. It won’t be used in Round 1.
Round 1: Have the team huddle to come up with as many ideas as they can for a holiday party. The ideas should be detailed and cover all bases—food, drinks, entertainment, decorations, prizes, locations, and so on. This is a numbers game: The group must come up with as many ideas as possible in only 45–60 seconds total. Stop the ideation exercise after that time.
Round 2: Now have everyone turn their cards face up in front of them so everybody else can see it. Explain that the rank of one’s card represents one’s status in the group: Ace is the lowest status; king is the highest (the suit doesn’t matter). Once each team member knows the status of the other members, the group continues the conversation—but this time, everyone is playing the status that’s on his or her card.
As members interact with each other, remind them to be aware of the status of the person they’re talking to. Give them three to five minutes for this conversation. Don’t remind them that their task is to come up with ideas for the holiday party! Let them to take natural ownership of the progress of this meeting.
Chances are you’ll watch things fall apart right before your eyes. People often fall immediately into the trap of using the whole time to emphasize their rank, drive their own agendas, and undercut every idea that isn’t theirs. The group almost completely loses sight of the point of their time together, which is to come up with ideas.
Round 3: Now the color of one’s card matters. Everyone with a red card aligns and agrees with each other; if you’ve got a black card, you’re on the same page as other black-cardholders only. Then encourage the group to interact with one another and to actively form teams within the team. Have them fight for their team’s ideas and put down the other team’s ideas; in other words, lower the other team’s status in the group while actively raising their own team’s status.
Again, give them three to five minutes for this portion of the round. And once again, do not remind anyone that their task is to come up with ideas for the holiday party.
When time’s up, there are probably a few people shouting at each other—the brainstorm has devolved into attacks and accusations. No matter what anyone has to say, no matter what ideas are being presented, everybody is fully consumed with proving their rank, working from their own motivations, and driving their own agendas.
Which round generated the most ideas? Whenever I’ve run this exercise, the answer is always clear: Round 1. Time after time, even though the group had only 45–60 seconds to work with, they got the job done. More ideas are generated in that round than in the second or third rounds of three to five minutes, and usually more than in both of those final rounds combined.
I’m always amazed by how quickly people slip from divergent thinking into convergent thinking without realizing that they had the power of choice: whether to use their rank as motivation to inform both individual and collective perspectives, or simply to drive their individual agendas. The team with a focused goal—where every member was equally valued—got the job done splendidly. The minute that individual agendas become more important than the mission is the moment the mission fails.
When I run this and ask participants which round felt more like the meetings everybody is used to going to, most people vote for Rounds 2 or 3. They exemplify what happens in too many workplaces: goals get knocked sideways by a room full of rank, status, emotions, personal agendas, and personal alliances.
Status and rank are powerful, but they aren’t always productive. Few things squash open communication faster than a higher-up speaking from on high. There may be times when people do need to marry themselves to a specific agenda that’s based on their rank and job title, but if that agenda doesn’t fit with a team’s agenda, the team suffers just as much as the individuals within it.
This article is adapted with permission from Getting to “Yes And”: The Art of Business Improv by Bob Kulhan with Chuck Crisafulli (c) 2017 Robert Kulhan. All rights reserved. Published by Stanford University Press in hardback and electronic editions, sup.org.