« Not Deciding is a Decision Made | Main | Slow Down for Yellow Lights »

Low Man on the Totem Pole

Ketchikan, Alaska. Native American totem poleImage via Wikipedia

Have you ever referred to the newest member of your work team as the "low man on the totem pole?" Meaning that he or she is at the "bottom" in terms of value to the team and the experience and perspective they can provide. It's a common analogy in our culture. But it's way wrong, a common misperception.

First of all, consider that Native Americans didn't think of it in that way. They likely put the most important person or symbol at the bottom, at eye level. Would it have made sense to put the most important person twenty or thirty feet off the ground, where no one could see him? Yet in our culture, we have this sense that higher is better. When we carve out organizational charts, we put what we consider the "most important people" at the top, right?

Think about our supermarkets today. What's the most valuable shelf space? The eye-level shelf. That's where the high-margin items go. Marketing experts charge big bucks to help retailers figure that stuff out.

Secondly, that newest person on the team brings a valuable perspective that others on the team have lost, or are in the process of losing. That new member has objective eyes. They can see things that others no longer notice:

  • the unspoken norms, such as safety violations, that have become "undiscussable"
  • sloppy maintenance of company property and landscaping ("Weeds? What weeds?")
  • practices that at first made sense, but now serve no purpose

Diversity is prevalent, whether it's among the faces on a totem pole, or within the boxes on an org chart. That diversity is a challenge and a godsend. Mahatma Gandhi suggested that one of the greatest challenges of our day is finding unity amongst diversity. Instead of focusing on how "high" or how new people are, we need to focus instead on finding unity of purpose. It's through unity of purpose that we can come together synergistically to accomplish great tasks -- tasks where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Astronaut Michael Collins understood the mistake in seeing some positions as lower on the totem pole than others. He said about his role on Apollo II, the first expedition to the moon, "I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo II seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two." Collins was pilot, while it was Armstrong and Aldrin who got to actually land on the moon. How 'bout that for a demonstration of unity of purpose?

Enhanced by Zemanta


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Low Man on the Totem Pole:


The comments to this entry are closed.

« Not Deciding is a Decision Made | Main | Slow Down for Yellow Lights »

Technorati Bookmark: Low Man on the Totem Pole

This site is intended for informational and conversational purposes, not to provide specific legal, investment, or tax advice.  Articles and opinions posted here are those of the author(s). Links to and from other sites are for informational purposes and are not an endorsement by this site’s sponsor.