Harold J. Leavitt

Not all societies weave achievement stories into their cultural fabric, but in modern-day democracies most of us are taught to want to climb. Hierarchies provide brightly illuminated ladders that are quite consistent with our meritocratic parable: “Work hard, young person, and no matter your origin or pedigree, you too can reach the top.” That story remains largely true. Hard and good work really does help us climb ladders to success. But hierarchies are also consistent with a more worrisome corollary, the notion that success deserves to be one’s primary life-goal. Yet few of us, even today, dispute the basic righteousness of that whole achievement orientation.

…Here’s a more controversial suggestion about why we support the hierarchies that so many of us profess to hate: Hierarchies evaluate us. They tell us how good or bad we are. Those evaluations are often invalid and even more often unjust. Nevertheless, we want to be evaluated-a bald assertion that will surely raise some hackles!

…How can anyone in his right mind assert that we want to be evaluated? Here’s an answer: People have achievement needs. On that dimension, managers-from supervisors to CEOs-are probably in the top decile of their nations’ populations. Humans are competitive, too, especially males. Twenty years of Jean Lipman-Blumen’s research on achieving styles with more than 20,000 male and female managers from around the world comes up with only one consistent difference between the sexes. Men everywhere score higher on competitiveness (one of nine achieving styles) than women. But women managers score higher on competitiveness than non-managerial women. Managers, that is to say, are competitors, and competitors’ egos want report cards. The one thing that would probably generate even more fury than existing evaluation procedures would be no evaluation procedures at all.

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