The dominance hierarchy

Let’s return to the issue of burnout. Where you fit in the pecking order has a big impact on your susceptibility to burnout.

The systems and subsystems described in the preceding section are experienced as a hierarchy, or management structure. Everybody in an organisation has a line manager (perhaps with the exception of the CEO, although even the CEO reports to the board) and many people have direct reports. We all have a place in the pecking order of corporate life. We all have differing levels of status in the organisation.

The Canadian clinical psychologist and author Jordan Peterson has written about how contemporary human systems such as management hierarchies are forms of the dominance hierarchy.2 In his book The 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Peterson, 2018), he describes how hierarchy emerged way back in our phylogenetic tree and can be seen in all human and animal groups. Ants have a dominance hierarchy, as do birds and apes. Peterson notes that all human groups and organisations have dominance hierarchies, from the church to the National Health Service, and even the British Labour Party. He famously argued that lobsters, which have been around for about 800 million years, use similar neurochemical systems to human beings to track their social position in relation to other lobsters: a high-status lobster, like a high-status human, will have higher levels of serotonin compared to a lobster further down in the pecking order. This translates in both animals and humans into greater calm, confidence and subjective well-being. All of these properties are important in determining our vulnerability, or not, to burnout. Peterson argues that it’s important to understand our own actions, motivations and behaviours in the context of our existence within the dominance hierarchy.

Similarly, in his book The Status Syndrome Michael Marmot links status to well-being (Marmot, 2015). He shows convincingly that your health, your level of contentment with life and even how long you live are overwhelmingly determined by one factor: status. Forget things like income or education; status has, by far, the biggest influence on your health, sense of well-being and longevity.

Status simply means your importance relative to others, or in other words, where you are in the pecking order. Or, where you are in the dominance hierarchy.

The importance of status has its roots in our hunter-gatherer past. When we as a species were evolving, our relative position in the social group to which we belonged could be a matter of life and death. It determined our access to food, safety and a mate. Because this was so important for survival, evolution equipped us with brain circuits that constantly monitor our status relative to others. Even in trivial situations like having a brief conversation with another person, deep in your brain there will be an awareness of your status relative to the other person. This phenomenon was famously described by George Bernard Shaw in his play Pygmalion when he wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him” (Shaw, 1916). He makes the point that accent is a marker of social and economic class - or in other words, status.

The brain thinks about status like it thinks about numbers. Your sense of status goes up when you feel superior to another person. The brain’s reward centre is stimulated and pleasure-inducing chemicals flood your nervous system. One piece of research found that an increase in perceived status was similar in strength to a financial windfall (Izuma et al., 2008). Winning a game or an argument probably feels good because of the perception of increased status and the resulting activation of the brain’s reward and pleasure centres.

As you might expect, the opposite is also true. Your sense of status goes down when you feel inferior to the other person. This generates a strong threat response and an activation of the freeze, fight or flight response. The brain’s centres that register physical pain are very close to and share some circuits with the centres that register emotional or social pain. That is why we experience feelings as physical bodily sensations. When someone is nasty to us, we talk about it being a ‘kick in the guts’. A loss of status hurts.

 
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