Flattening the gradient

What former US Navy Captain and leadership guru David Marquet can teach us about managing power gradient.

The premise of David Marquet’s book Leadership is Language, (For more on Marquet click to his website) is that the deliberate and self aware choice of language in how we communicate within teams can transform the way we communicate and collaborate with others, supercharge team performance, and help to manage errors. Power gradient is one of the areas that he dwells on and demonstrates how your choice of language can build up or break down gradient.

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Gradient is not just an aviation thing. Nor is it only about a Captain-co-pilot dichotomy. It exists between all the crew, as well as it exists in any and every relationship. Neither is gradient a fixed element. It is ever changing and variable according to circumstances and situation.

Whatever the circumstances however, one thing never changes. The rule of power gradients is that the steeper the gradient, the more difficult it is for information to flow upwards – think speaking truth to authority.

What are the trappings of power gradient? They surround us and are omnipresent: physical separation – one office for the boss, another for the team – executive dining rooms, crew lounges, reserved parking spots, different uniforms or attire, for example overall and hard hat colours, share of voice in meetings and groups, and indeed the way we have learnt and are culturally programmed to talk to each other. Nevertheless, in many cases the senior person in a relationship may not even be aware of the existence of these cues, will not be thinking about gradient, and is unlikely to be bothered about it. A junior person will sense the power gradient more.

If your position or your experience gives you more authority or power, then you need to actively work to flatten the power gradient with those below you. It is incumbent on the authority figure to flatten the gradient because it is extremely difficult for the junior person to flatten an otherwise steep power gradient to their senior. Evidence from many studies demonstrates that teams with flatter gradients have better back-and forth-communication, better error correction, and more learning. How do we make members of the team feel sufficiently safe to speak up?

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Steps to actively flatten a power gradient:

  1. Be able to admit you don’t know.
  1. Be vulnerable: the leader should draw attention to his own mistakes and doubts.
  1. Trust first: trust means I believe you mean well. Whether or not you do well depends on many factors beyond just wanting to do well.
  1. Enhance accessibility, both physically in terms of getting rid of barriers of status and social distance, and in terms of your communication.
  1. Deliberately work to reduce the fear of the junior person of being judged, assessed, and evaluated by others, especially in a social context. This is called creating psychological safety.
  1. Dedicate deliberate thought to the use of language. Focus on how you communicate. To do this well requires continuous self-awareness, and reprogramming to avoid the default imperative mode of communication that we habitually resort to. 
      • For example, language that steepens the power gradient and prevents participation:
          • “I have more experience.”
          • “I have done this before.”
          • “I was in the meeting.”
          • “The boss told me that he/she wants…”
          • “Well, you’ve never done that before.”
      • Language that flattens the power gradient and enhances participation sounds like this:
          • “Your fresh eyes will be valuable on this.”
          • “Just because we’ve been doing this for a long time, doesn’t mean we can’t improve it.”
          • “When it comes to improving things, different perspectives are helpful.”
          • “I’ve done this so many times it’s hard for me to see it objectively.”

Despite long embedded CRM practices that have positively affected communication and safety, Captains continue to crash airplanes four times more frequently than co-pilots because co-pilots are less willing to correct their Captain’s mistakes than the other way round. Furthermore, the Captain is less willing to listen to a correction from the co-pilot than vice versa. This speaks to the powerful allure of human nature to hierarchy.

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