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Five reasons – in no particular order – why hierarchy sucks

While writing a piece for the book on just this subject, I realised I’d never put all the things I don’t like about hierarchy in one clear place… nor seen it done succinctly elsewhere. So here’s my non-comprehensive polemic on why I think hierarchy is about the worst default setting we could pick for our organisations…

Chichen Itza
FACT: Organisations that build pyramids are less resilient than their counterparts

Few concepts are as ingrained in our institutions as that of hierarchy. We assume that someone will have final say, that we always report to someone, that someone should be earning more than someone else…

But when it comes down to it, hierarchy doesn’t sit that well with the core values of most progressive people, even if we practice it in countless settings on a day-to-day basis.

I don’t think we need to accept it as a ‘necessary evil’, undermining our lived visions of the world any more. But that’s what the book’s about. Here’s why hierarchy sucks:

It assumes the worst of people, and thus is likely to foster the worst in them

From the basic premise of having to ‘start at the bottom and work your way up’, hierarchy doesn’t give any of us the credit to be able to do the amazing things that people constantly demonstrate the ability to do, irrespective of where they might fall on an organisational chart.

More practically though, hierarchy denies us the autonomy to use our judgment and figure things out in our own ways.

Formalising accountability – especially when it only flows in one direction – breaks down trust, because it assumes we won’t be honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

If we can’t be honest with each other, this is what we need to look at understanding, rather than creating structures that make it harder to develop a shared sense of collective accountability for what we do.

It creates power dynamics that foster dishonesty and poor information sharing/coordination/learning

By centralising power and control, you distribute the desire for power and control. When power and control are more evenly shared, there is less reason for most people to want more of it.

Everyone needs to make themselves look better than someone else, if they want to progress their career, improve their income, etc. The hierarchy pits individual interest, against the shared/collective interest, which can’t be a good thing for any organisation that hopes to have some kind of future.

It expects its leaders to be superheroes

It elevates individuals to positions in which the unattainable is expected of them. Because their job title is ‘x’, they are expected to do ‘y’… A promotion to ‘w’ means they are expected to do ‘y+1’… which makes sense… until it doesn’t.

Many argue that the people in leadership positions of massive multinational institutions can in no meaningful way know enough about their organisation to justify the difference between their salaries and the salaries of those below them. The rises follow a linear progression, but have no grounding in practical reality. At a certain stage ‘y+1’ becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back, surpassing human ability, or the number of hours in a day, and becoming inherently unachievable. But we pretend this isn’t the case, and all the ‘failed’ leaders have failed due to their own shortcomings, not something inherent to our expectations of them.

It pretends we live in a linear and controllable world that only exists as a Fordian fantasy, wasting heaps of time

Strategic planning suggests that if you get the correct executives in an expensive enough room for an extended period of time, you will be able to predict the future.

Important people (according to the hierarchy) spend a great deal of time together in organisations, writing documents which declare, in spite of everything outside their walls: ‘A will lead to B will lead to C’.

Additionally, they write further documents to detail how others will ensure that A will lead to B will lead to C.

And then something unexpected happens – as it invariably does – and all their hard work is at best swept aside, and at worse, followed to a T, in spite of a radically changed reality.

When reality strikes, it should make crystal clear that those in the institution who are receiving the largest proportionate amount of its resources, do not have a crystal ball than can plan for any eventuality. By nature of having been elevated to a certain plateau, these individuals have not achieved a superhuman ability to understand all the parts of a complex system.

It denies the centrality of context, assuming that the best decisions can be made from outside the contexts they will be applied in

If we think the best decisions can be made by the people furthest away from their application, we’ve got another thing coming…

The theory that enough information will ‘trickle-up’, from-street-to-suite, to give those who have never experienced the situations they are making decisions for, enough understanding to do a good job, is basically nuts and is not remotely grounded in the experiences of the real world, from sector-to-sector.

Given what we know about how information moves through hierarchical systems (see the first two points), we can’t really believe such systems provide the stuff of good decision making, can we?

Good decisions must be grounded in the realities they will apply to. This is also why ‘scaling up’ of good local ideas almost never works; context is everything, and replacing particular situations and relationships with others and expecting the results to be the same, only makes sense if you are far enough from the ground, for the critical details to have become invisible.

…What have I missed? What is unfair generalisation? What am I misattributing blame for?


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Posted in accountability and flexibility and hierarchy and leadership + management and power and trust.

3 comments

3 Replies

  1. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?

    The mystery is why some managers are like this. Their inexperience may make them reluctant to have trust and confidence in those they manage or they may get stuck in this mould for their whole career. They may well be exemplying the management style the organisation seems to value. It can be manifested in excessive upward loyalty and no downward loyalty. They may really think this is the right way to manage, that there is only one right way, which must be made to work for everyone: when it doesn’t that’s the subordinate’s fault. Their knowledge and expertise is unquestionably superior simply through position, for they are master of all they survey and the centre of importance. Like maths teachers, they may want not only the right answer but proof you got there their way.

    GAINING POWER AND LOSING SOUL: LESS LIKE PEOPLE

    It may be a power kick thing, which can be revealed in stock recitations of “I am the manager. I make the decisions here” and an obsession with control in which the planning, priority-shuffling and reporting systems become more important than the outcomes. But when it comes to results, theirs is the credit; yours the blame. All this can become dehumanising for both manager and staff. A gap can widen between who the manager really is and how they are at work: between their values and their actions.

    Just look at how outmoded and unpriductive it can be –

    KNOWING BEST

    Decades back, after managers told researchers to come up with a super glue, they were miffed to get back a weak glue. The staff left to set up on their own, making a bundle through post-it notes. The original managers then decided to allocate staff some time in which to work on the projects they wanted to do so that opportunities weren’t missed in future.

    STREET-TO-SUITE

    While Council chiefs were meeting long ago to decide what facilities tenants on a housing estate needed, the secretary serving tea was thumping the cups down in front of them increasingly hard until one spilled over a director. “That’s not what the tenants need!” she said. “How do you know? You’re Just A Secretary” a director barked. “I know,” she responded “Cos I live there”.


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