How Dominance Hierarchies Limit Diversity (+An Alternative)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Rebel Ideas" by Matthew Syed. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are dominance hierarchies? How do they limit diversity in groups? What’s an alternative?

In Rebel Ideas, author Matthew Syed explains the value of diversity in groups and how communication structures and hierarchies can either help or hinder diversity. According to him, dominance hierarchies suppress diversity while prestige hierarchies promote it.

Read on to learn about dominance and prestige hierarchies and their connection to diversity, according to Syed.

Dominance and Prestige Hierarchies

According to Matthew Syed’s book Rebel Ideas, the communication structure of a group can either undermine or enhance the value of cognitive diversity, which is the range of insights, ideas, and viewpoints represented in a group. In this article, we’ll discuss how dominance hierarchies lead to the suppression of diverse voices, while prestige hierarchies ensure that diverse voices are heard. 

How Dominance Hierarchies Negate Cognitive Diversity

According to Syed, dominance hierarchies in which leaders rule via fear and threats are a common feature of human societies. He argues that these hierarchies suppress views that differ from the leaders’, thus reducing the collective intelligence of cognitively diverse groups.

Syed says dominance hierarchies played an important evolutionary role, as groups with dominant leaders were more likely to survive. Because prehistoric societies were typically faced with simple decisions, having a dominant leader make decisions was effective and more efficient. By contrast, groups that squabbled over straightforward decisions were less efficient and thus less likely to survive. 

(Shortform note: Beyond bolstering group survival rates, researchers argue that dominance hierarchies led directly to humans’ greater cognitive capacities. Participating in a dominance hierarchy required us to distinguish between different ranks, understand the behaviors permitted for our own rank, and decide whether to change our rank. So, the individuals who succeeded in dominance hierarchies possessed the cognitive capacity needed to make these judgments, which they then passed on to future generations.)

However, Syed argues that dominance hierarchies are actually harmful in multifaceted situations, in which dominant leaders alone can’t know all the information in the problem space. In such situations, Syed says dominant leaders view diverse opinions as threatening, so they intimidate subordinates with diverse views into silence. 

Diverse groups become no more effective than homogeneous ones, as subordinates don’t voice their opinions. Instead, Syed notes that they seek to please the leader by mirroring whatever the leader says. For example, Syed says that in business meetings, dominant individuals’ opinions quickly rise to the forefront, and different opinions of other team members are rarely voiced; rather, team members simply echo the leaders’ opinions. 

Steps to Prevent the Groupthink Created by Dominance Hierarchies

Groups with dominance hierarchies often suffer from groupthink—they make irrational decisions because group members would rather conform than offer dissenting opinions. In Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models, Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann offer various strategies for companies to mitigate groupthink, including:

– Appoint a devil’s advocate—someone who argues against proposed ideas to make sure they’re being critically evaluated. The devil’s advocate can often find flaws with the idea in question.

– Divide meetings into independent subgroups, which pitch their ideas to the entire team afterward. These subgroups ensure that various ideas and perspectives are represented.

– Seek out employees with different opinions, both within the company and when hiring new candidates. These employees help you establish a more diverse pool of ideas to pull from.

How Prestige Hierarchies Harness Cognitive Diversity

As an alternative to dominance hierarchies, Syed examines prestige hierarchies, whose leaders are followed freely out of respect, rather than fear. According to Syed, leaders of prestige hierarchies listen carefully to diverse perspectives, maximizing collective intelligence.

(Shortform note: In a similar vein, experts also argue that groups need psychological safety—an environment where members don’t fear embarrassment or punishment for offering “wrong” ideas—to maximize collective intelligence and success. In such groups, members don’t blame each other for mistakes, but view mistakes with curiosity and an open mind. Therefore, psychologically safe groups actually benefit from discussing flawed ideas, as they learn from them.)

Syed cites anthropological findings that certain tribes had leaders who earned respect from peers through their wisdom and who sought to uplift these peers rather than strike fear into them. Such leaders, he notes, freely shared their knowledge with others and didn’t feel threatened by opposing voices.

Syed argues that, from an evolutionary perspective, prestigious leaders who shared their knowledge created groups where generosity was prized. Consequently, leaders themselves benefited from the open flow of information. And because prestigious leaders share their knowledge, multiple prestigious leaders could exist peacefully within a group.

(Shortform note: Because individuals attempt to imitate prestigious leaders, individuals have to quickly identify these leaders in the first place. To do so, researchers suggest that they often rely on social proxies for prestige, such as academic credentials or other awards. In other words, these researchers say that prestige is socially transmitted.)

As a result, Syed says prestigious hierarchies are better at harnessing the power of cognitive diversity during the decision-making process. However, he concedes that dominance hierarchies are useful once a decision is made, at which point dissent impedes the execution of the decision. 

(Shortform note: Because dominance hierarchies and prestige hierarchies are best suited for different situations, experts say superior bosses alternate between dominant and prestigious leadership styles, depending on the context. For example, bosses might adopt a dominant approach when a clear business strategy is in place—one that requires a unified team. By contrast, during the discussion stage bosses might adopt a prestigious style to convey that they value subordinates and their input.)

Exercise: Evaluate Communication at Your Workplace

Syed discusses the effects of dominance and prestige hierarchies on communication within groups. In this exercise, evaluate how different leadership styles have affected communication in your own workplace.

  • Describe a recent situation at work in which a leader took a dominant approach to address a problem. How did this dominant approach influence communication within the workplace?
  • Describe a recent situation at work in which a leader took a prestigious approach to address a problem. 
  • How did this prestigious approach influence communication within the workplace?
  • Which strategies could you implement in the workplace to ensure that diverse voices are heard? 
  • Why do you think those strategies would be effective?
How Dominance Hierarchies Limit Diversity (+An Alternative)

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  • Why diverse groups are more collectively intelligent than homogeneous ones
  • Actionable advice for creating cognitively diverse groups
  • Why systems shouldn't be designed to fit the "average" person

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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