I thought I must have misheard.

“You think you have the wrong engineering degree?” I asked.

Yes, my client said.

And to be clear: the degree in question was his Ph.D. Not the MBA he’d also succeeded in earning.

I was confused. My client was a Senior Director at a Fortune 100 technology company. During the year we worked together he was promoted twice. But none of that mattered to him.

He was convinced that his peers were smarter than he was. His self-doubt cast his degrees and accolades in a pale light.

From my perspective, and that of his bosses, my client was more than able to hold his own. But his self-assessment was based on his assessment of his colleagues. Relative to others, he felt lower stature.

When it comes to power, relative rank gives absolute rank a run for its money.

In a fun talk Malcolm Gladwell gave at Google, called Why You Shouldn’t Go To Harvard, he explained that a student’s persistence at getting a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) degree is a function, not of intelligence, grit, or support system, as we might think, but of their class rank.

The students scoring in the lower third at Harvard had SAT scores that would have easily placed them in the top third at a less elite university. But still, their completion rate was a mere 16%, a percentage that held across all universities.

Regardless of one’s SAT scores or any other metric of intelligence, the bottom third of all students getting a STEM degree, whether at Harvard or your local community college, drop out.


Because our sense of rank is relative to others. We form our self-concept not by looking inwards, but by looking outwards.

And this has serious implications.

Jonathan Haidt, writing in the Atlantic about the sharp uptick in suicide among teenage girls, shows that the rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury spiked precisely when social-media platforms expanded, in the early 2010s.

For a teenage girl, in particular, social media is the prime arena of social interaction, and it “puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—[social media] takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.”

Suicide rates in general could also be a function of relative ranking.  Gladwell points out that the countries with the highest suicide rates are also those countries routinely rated as the happiest ones.

It seems paradoxical until viewed through the lens of relative rank. “If you’re depressed in a country where everyone is kind of unhappy you’re normal. But if you’re depressed in a country where everyone is happy, you are really depressed.”

To get back to my client: he didn’t say to himself, “I’ve got a PhD in Engineering, and an MBA, and I’m a Senior Director at a Fortune 100 technology company, and my reviews by my managers are always positive.” No.

Instead, my client looked around and said, my colleagues are much more sure of themselves, and they’re computer engineers. I’m just a chemical engineer. They are much smarter than I am.

Students at the bottom third of a STEM major at Harvard don’t say, “I’m probably in the top 1% percentile of native math ability,” but instead, say, “I’m not as smart as the other students, so I’m going to drop out.”

Basically, your sense of rank is better when you don’t know what your peers are doing. We base our self-esteem on the fulfillment of the dominant norms and values of our culture, not on our own values.

This doesn’t just relate to how you feel, but to how your perform as well. My client just couldn’t bring his best thinking or self to the table. And that wasn’t just bad for him, but a loss to the company as well.

Cultures play a huge role in this. While comparing ourselves to others is something we’re hardwired to do, the culture we’re in can exacerbate or mitigate such a tendency.

High school pecking orders and ingroup/outgroup dynamics are sure to fan the flames of social comparison. As will a competitive and status-conscious work culture.

My client was always a little self-effacing, but the dragon of self-doubt reared its head with a vengeance after his last promotion. Suddenly, at a higher level of leadership, in a more competitive team, with sharper elbows, he became consumed with self-doubt.

This explains why ‘in-group/out group’ dynamics play such a big role in shaping organizational culture. It’s no surprise that among the top issues people complain about at work isn’t the pay, the boss, or the hours, but insider/outside issues, cliques, and gossip.

We all have our own work to do when it comes to self-esteem, but a workplace culture that can manage rank dynamics creates a healthier environment, one in which people feel better about themselves. And a key to managing rank dynamics is to understand the informal power of belonging.

Belonging can be a matter of life and death. It is not surprising that a central theme of all religions is hospitality and the welcoming of strangers. If you can remember a time you were a stranger or a newcomer, or you felt ostracized, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Someone just walking across the room to welcome you is huge.  (A beautiful memoir on belonging is Breaking the Ocean by Annahid Dashtgard)

The sense of belonging can be based on many things: seniority, being aligned with the norms of an organization, having a dominant personality, or having some friends in the group.

If you find it easy to speak up, you can use that power to welcome people, say hello, introduce yourself to a newcomer.

If you’re lucky enough to be well connected, you can use that power to make a seat at the table for others as well.

If you’re a manager, you can reduce cliques and in-groups by ensuring people get a chance to work with different people, and create trust and deeper social bonds.

Self-esteem is not just an inside job, but takes shape within the context of a dominant culture. We all do better in kinder and supportive cultures. And we all have some power, even if just a tiny bit, to make our cultures kinder.

Thank you for reading.