Our Superstitious Fear of Hierarchy

By Michelle Malay Carter on October 8, 2007 

Superstitions develop in the absence of knowledge.? When people lack understanding, they can give cause and effect status to items simply related by time and space.? If enough people repeat it, it becomes truth.

It is en vogue these days to bash hierarchies.? The editor of Harvard Business Review conducted an online survey asking readers what they thought the ?modern? industrial organization would look like. ?News flash: ?Hierarchies, the design by which humans have organized themselves since the beginning of time, will be pass? in 20 years.Black Cat

Certainly, employees are hurt at the hands of hierarchies, but people die at the hands of bacteria.? Yes, bacteria can kills us, but without them we couldn?t digest our food.? They are a necessary and natural part of the human ecosystem, and we can use knowledge to ameliorate their destructive power and exploit their positive properties.

When people prattle about the elimination of hierarchy, that by implication means an organization without levels; even a two layer organization is a hierarchy.? Would you really want to work at an organization without levels? ?What would that mean?? Talk about unintented consequences!

No Hierarchy?

Maybe it?s not hierarchy that is the problem, but rather it is our ignorance surrounding how to structure them to our benefit rather than our detriment.

Consequences of Too Many Levels in a Hierarchy?
Yes, there can be too many levels in an organization.? This causes buck passing, slowed decision making, turf wars and work overlap.? This breeds frustration, inefficiency and hampered production.

Consequences of Too Few Levels in a Hierarchy?
Yes, there can be too few layers in organizations.? This breeds overwork, ambiguity, and unrealistic expectations.

Humans both seek leadership and contain the potential to provide leadership to others.? We are wired for hierarchy, and that is why humans have been creating them since the beginning of time.

Rather than fighting against hierarchy, why not seek to understand work levels and human capability and naturally align them to release employees? full potential and to offer employees satiating leadership.

That is really want people want ? a job that taps their full potential and a manager who can provide leadership.? Contrary to popular folklore, an appropriately designed hierarchy will provide just this.

It?s not magic. It?s science. Through knowledge, we can eliminate the superstitious fear of hierarchy.

Filed Under Employee Engagement, Organization Design, Requisite Organization


2 Responses to “Our Superstitious Fear of Hierarchy”

  1. Joe Jordan on October 8th, 2007 10:00 am

    Insightful thoughts. Thank you for sharing them.

    Whether an organization’s structure is a pyramid of heirarchy or a flat-land of shared responsibility, design won’t determine success. The critical factors in any coporate system are leadership and accountability. Without leadership (not to be confused with control) organizations easily lose focus, miss opportunities, and people develop attitudes of distrust and fear. Without accountability for one’s behavior and actions, people abuse the priviledges of leadership, organizations squander their resources, and in time, most of the company’s best talent will leave for a more challenging and more rewarding opportunity.

  2. Michelle Malay Carter on October 8th, 2007 10:57 am


    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree critical factors in any corporate system are leadership and accountability. If you design an organization to ensure that employees are assured a manager who can provide them leadership, then design can go along way toward driving success.

    Part of that design must include explicitly specifying what I mean by the ability to provide leadership and a means for judging this ability. A total-system approach to managerial leadership and organization design will include this. Accountability and managerial leadership must be designed into the system.

    Yes, I agree people must be accountable for the behaviors and actions, but managerers must be accountable for their direct reports’ output. This is yet another critical piece of systems design that drives success.