Hierarchy can be good for you!

Death to the hierarchy!  Modern management thinking has been promoting the abolition of organizational hierarchies.  “Let people self-manage!”

It’s not the hierarchy itself that’s the problem, it’s the way the hierarchy is functioning.  Let’s unpack this today.

Hierarchy is about the level of detail.  I hear the anti-hierarchy folks promoting “team of teams” and then “team of team of teams”.  Guess what? That’s a hierarchy. When you are mobilizing thousands of people, someone needs to work on the details and someone needs to be looking more broadly.  Yes, I everyone should know the big picture, but thousands of people cannot be determining strategic direction. Thousands of people also don’t need to build organizational obstacles and build cross-organizational systems.

Hierarchies don’t have to be about “bosses”.  As a person who struggles with authority figures, this one is near and dear to my heart.  To me, the biggest problem with the current hierarchy model is that there’s authority associated with “bosses”.  Yuck. We’re all adults here, I don’t need a parent at work. The hierarchy is simply about looking through different lenses, not approval, judgement or permission.  Being judged by your superior (the dreaded performance review) is perhaps the most inhumane thing that happens in workplaces today. A healthy organization promotes open dialogue between equals, where you are looking broadly and I’m looking at the details.  The person looking broadly doesn’t have to be “better than” or “more knowledgeable than” the person looking at the details. We have different information and it’s useful to share.

Hierarchy doesn’t have to be about power.  One of the problems with the way hierarchies work today is that power is at the top.  The people at the bottom doing the work, kowtow to the powerful. In fact, the people doing the actual work have the most power, but because it’s distributed amongst individuals it’s rarely exercised.  You see it in play with unions, pocket vetos, and culture. Cultural backlash is the organization's way of balancing power.

Organizations thrive when the people at the top are not in the “better-than box”, but simply looking through a different lens.

Hierarchy doesn’t have to be about money.  Hierarchies have traditionally meant that the higher you are on the org chart, the more you get paid.  And as we’ve seen recently with ballooning executive pay, pay grows exponentially as you climb the ladder.  This practice promotes scarcity thinking, and scarcity thinking limits an organization’s ability to create abundance.  

The argument often comes back that those at the top have more “responsibility” and risk, so therefore they should get paid more.  This simply calls for distribution of responsibility and risk so that it’s not concentrated.

People at the top of the hierarchy are not worth more money than those at the bottom, doing the actual work.

Hierarchies can be flexible.  A rigid hierarchy where I ‘“report to” a single person, creates risk.  It’s risky because each employee has a single point of failure, no redundancy.  Consider this, I have a great idea, but my boss doesn’t see the value. The end.  On the other hand, flexible hierarchies with multiple paths and networked connections work well in these cases.  If the hierarchy is about the level of detail, but not ‘approval’, perhaps people can be human again.

How has hierarchy affected your work life?  Let us know!