Tribalism

Ascending the corporate ranks at the organization where I work is daunting.  There are many precocious upstarts, brilliant minds with ambition to match, who are keen on climbing what British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, speaking about politics, famously called the greasy pole.  Only the most talented of talented reach the summit.  Such is the competition.  That's the theory at least.

Getting ahead requires, above all else, conquering the appraisal process that separates the wheat from the chaff.  It's so rigorous that most fail to make the grade, sometimes repeatedly.  The appraisal is not one test, but rather many that take place over the course of a weekend at a rented cottage.  During the appraisal, various tests, which can involve professional actors playing the parts of disgruntled colleagues, belligerent clients, and so on and which supposedly call on a range of skills to successfully navigate, are played out in front of an assessment board.  More traditional written exams, done under strict time constraints, are also administered, as are other tests gauging a range of abilities and skills.

Mercifully, as part of support staff, I am exempt from such rigorous assessments.  My peripheral status also means that my contact with the organization's top brass is minimal.  But there are exceptions.  Recently, I had a meeting with the organization's head, its effective CEO.  In the span of fifteen minutes, he belittled, intimidated, and bullied, turning what should have been an informal gathering after-hours on a relatively trivial matter into a tense and stressful episode.  After the meeting, my immediate boss, who was also in attendance, brushed it off.  "That's nothing," he said, indicating that he'd seen far worse.

How is it that a man who has reached the top of his profession engages in such counterproductive behavior that alienates those on whom he depends?   Shouldn't the meticulous appraisal process filter out such disagreeable deviants?  Stories of tyrannical bosses are clichés, so clearly their like can and do rise.  But there may be something more at work than meets the eye.  Fleshing out what requires going on a tangent.

Few ethnic or racial groups should be more united than Jews, that unlucky lot cast into the Diaspora for millennia where they suffered discrimination and annihilation in between fleeting periods of acceptance.  The formation of the State of Israel brought a good portion of the world's Jewry home to their ancestral land, where, it stood to reason, their history of persecution and the ever-present threat from hostile neighbors would create an extraordinary sense of solidarity.  That has not happened.

Israel is a fractured place.  The divisions are many: secular-religious, Ashkenazi-Mizrahim, Russian-non-Russian, settler-non-settler, etc. (not to mention Arab-Jew).  Not one Israeli Prime Minster has been of Mizrahi descent and their ranks are not included in the country's economic and cultural elite.  The one million immigrants from Russia are only slowly integrating into the mainstream.  Gideon Levy, writing in the pages of Ha’aretz on the occasion of Israel’s Impendence Day, observed: "Alongside integration, many processes of segregation and separation prevail, and the lofty words about unity are no more than hollow clichés.  Let's recognize that, for better or worse…One nation?  That's a far cry from reality.  Perhaps not yet lost, but still 10 tribes."

The point is not that Israel is somehow different.  Precisely the opposite.  Its stratification is commonplace, prosaic.  That's the point.  If even Jews, who, despite their historical persecution, exhibit sharp societal divisions when brought together in their own land, it stands to reason that such categorizing is intrinsic.  That's what humans do.  It's innate.  Evolutionary psychologists argue as much.  Which brings me back to my organization's head.

Simply chalking up his behavior to arrogance doesn’t explain much.  There’s likely much more to it.  His condescension may well reflect an us vs. them assessment, which is arrived at using pedigree and class, amongst other measures, to determine which category his audience falls into.  He's not unusual.  Like all of us, he categorizes, only it’s more glaring and more galling given his position of power.  Isn’t that, after all, what condescension is, i.e., the conveying of an assessment of lesser stature and/or worth?       

  And what about that rigorous appraisal process that supposedly tests for merit?  That too is largely bogus.  The test, like so many tests, is biased.  Those with the same educational and class profile as those it assesses administer it.  In other words, the process for determining who gets ahead is self-selecting in the same way that the game is rigged in favor for Ashkenazis in Israel and that in the US, for many years, was rigged for white males.  As ever, it’s about categorization, or more simply, tribalism.  Such knowledge, of course, is useful only to a certain point.  It doesn’t make a meeting with a nasty boss any easier.

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