The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Hierarchy, Its Inevitability, and Usefulness?

“Matt,”a graduate from a top business school, joined Facebook, one of California’s innovative high-technology companies in Silicon Valley. He was told: We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building great products. We’re family-friendly, we have few levels and less hierarchy.

We hear that message a lot from today’s businesses and business gurus. The work environment is changing drastically and that today’s companies are becoming fundamentally different from the companies of old. And that you’re company needs to get on board the bandwagon. We’re told that not only are companies more global, but, they emphasize, to succeed companies must become more dynamic and innovative—and less formal and hierarchical. Less hierarchical?

Demise of hierarchy?
Seemingly, there are good reasons for the end of hierarchy. In the last few years both Harold Leavitt and Gary Hamel have argued that hierarchy discourages innovation and employment engagement. It makes employees into “disaffected Dilberts.” Furthermore, inexpensive communication technology, social networking and crowd-sourcing suggest that hierarchy is not only disappearing, but irrelevant.

All that sounds great. And certainly it’s not limited to Northern California or high-technology. But, really, just how accurate is that statement? Is that the whole picture? And, as Jeff Pfeffer wonders, are today’s companies fundamentally different than those of old? Are we seeing the death of hierarchy?

Here to stay
We may want hierarchy to disappear and actively seek out confirming evidence of its demise. But the fact of the matter is that hierarchy is here to stay. And there are a number of very important reasons for its permanence.

Hierarchy is fundamental. Despite many different attacks on hierarchical work systems, the structure is basic to human nature. It fulfills the deep-seated need for certainty, order and security. Given the choice of social arrangements for work tasks, individuals choose hierarchy. That’s true of both older and younger generations. Admittedly, hierarchies can become authoritarian and poisonous, but hierarchies also deliver practical and psychological value. The very human need for certainty and predictability are inevitably found in hierarchical structure. Furthermore, as the Nobelist, Herbert Simon, said more than 50 years ago, hierarchy is not only a general feature of most systems but, in fact, makes complexity—including complex, coordinated social and physical arrangements—possible.

Hierarchy is empirically supported. As early as 1975 research showed that individuals actually prefer and choose hierarchy for work situations. But a recent study by Tiedens, Unqueta and Young (2007), demonstrated that though early studies emphasized equality in relationship partners, this study on task relationships comes up with differing conclusions. When participants are given the choice of hierarchy or other social arrangements for work tasks, they actually prefer—and choose—hierarchy. Indeed, the authors found that the motivation for work performance changes the usual American picture of egalitarian relationships.  Concerns for task success make hierarchy the ordinary expectation and desire. It’s important to note that this study was of the younger, Millennial generation. So as Pfeffer concludes, hierarchy will certainly endure because it is a natural arrangement and does not have to be imposed from on high.

Hierarchy impacts personal motivation. Both reasoning and personal experience make it inevitable that if there are hierarchies of power and status—and the research documents their existence—then many individuals will prefer to be nearer the top than the bottom. It’s obvious, also, that the financial rewards and status are nearer to the top, motivating many individuals to advance on the corporate hierarchical ladder. Furthermore, the fact that inequality appears to be increasing, not only in the US, but also in the UK and other nations, is indicative of the impact of hierarchy upon motivation. In addition, it has also been empirically demonstrated that life span and illness are impacted significantly by hierarchy. Those in the top rungs not only live better, they also live longer.

Career processes
These findings about hierarchy and the competition for advancement demonstrate that the political dynamics of organizations changed very little in the past and will change very little in the future. That means that both employees and external agents will want to know “who’s in charge.” Spans of control, decentralization of decision making, and the rules of career advancement will not be changing significantly. It also will be true, as Pfeffer points out that many of the same communication technologies and the inexpensive computing power that make horizontal collaboration easier also permit much more computer-aided monitoring of work and communication, thereby creating environments with more control and less behavioral discretion than in the past.

So it’s important not to get sucked into all the hype about working in new types of companies. Hierarchy will remain the same—and so will such things as the way competence is measured, the management of bosses and colleagues and the need to manage organizational networks to get things done. Success will also require even more interpersonal and communication competencies, along with still higher demands for political skill.

“Matt,” who was introduced at the start of this blog, illustrates the notion of hierarchy and its behavioral consequences very well. Matt was forced out of Facebook for reasons unrelated to his job performance. Although he now works at another technology company, he has learned an important lesson. He uses an executive coach, whose advice begins with urging him to learn and practice the established principles of power, politics and influence in order to navigate his career.

Adapted from Jeffrey Pfeffer, You’re still the same: why theories of power hold over time and across contexts. Academy of Management Perspectives, 2013, Vol.27 (4), 269-280. 

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