Because hierarchy is bad, right?

For the past century or so, various groups of people—in political, religious and business circles—have been saying more and more loudly that hierarchy is awful and unnecessary, and that if you simply empower people and get them rallied around a meaningful purpose, they’ll work together without any need for defined leaders or managers—no power structure of any kind. These movements and philosophies generally arise in response to burdensome, ill-conceived structures that concentrate power and freedom in the hands of a few people, and are as a result both inefficient and inequitable.

Having a leaderless organization sounds really great, and it appeals deeply to that part of us that is always thinking, You’re not the boss of me!, but it turns out that it doesn’t work very well. In fact, freedom from hierarchy doesn’t exist anywhere in nature: animals always have some sort of social structure that dictates each creature’s access to resources and role in the survival of the group. And I’ve never seen any kind of successful human organization that didn’t include a defined leadership and management structure of some kind.

My business partner sent me a very thought-provoking and well-written article from LinkedIn the other day, Hierarchy Is Good, Hierarchy Is Essential. And Less Isn’t Always Better. In it, Bob Sutton of The No Asshole Rule fame), shares his surprise at discovering the positive aspects of heirarchy in the course of researching his latest book. As he says:

I have always despised hierarchies in my heart, but this research taught me that they are good and necessary—of course some are good and others are bad, but spreading and sustaining excellence depends on having an effective pecking order.

He goes on to talk about how research has shown that all collections of humans (or animals) begin to organize themselves into relative levels of status and power within a few minutes of meeting; it seems inevitable. At the same time, no one (Sutton included) would argue that all hierarchies are good. Some are dreadful and oppressive, and and others are simply inefficient. So if we’re stuck with hierarchy as an operating model to some extent, how do we make it as good as it can possibly be?

Respect at every level. One of the things most of us dislike about bad hierarchy is that people at top of a power structure often get treated with a lot more respect as individuals than folks at the bottom. It doesn’t have to be that way—and shouldn’t be. In the article, Sutton quotes Mark Templeton, CEO of software firm Citrix, about this element of hierarchy, “…that’s where a lot of organizations go off track, confusing respect and hierarchy, and thinking that low on hierarchy means low respect; high on the hierarchy means high respect.” There are some practical ways to insure that respect doesn’t evaporate as you move down into the organization. First, communicate clearly and consistently with all employees about big things that are happening in the organization. When you don’t let people know about important events that affect them, it feels deeply disrespectful—as though they’re simply mindless cogs in the machine, not worth keeping in the loop. Second, invite and consider their concerns, and look for ways to address the concerns that arise most often. Finally, when disagreements happen, continue to speak to people with consideration and patience, explaining decisions in terms of hoped-for outcomes, vs. devolving into order-giving and “because I said so” responses.

Rules focused on clarity vs. control. The worst sort of hierarchy focuses on controlling its members—even the most senior ones. For example, one organization I know of forces every employee to apply in writing six month ahead of time to take vacation, and the ‘vacation application’ includes (among other things) how much vacation time you took last year, where you intend to go on vacation (including the address or addresses you’ll be staying at), who will take over your responsibilities while you’re gone, and how the organization can get in touch with you when you’re out. In contrast, good hierarchies create simple, easily understandable rules for time off that help make sure the organization isn’t negatively affected, without assuming that people need to be tightly controlled in order not to screw up. At Netflix, for example, the main rule is that bosses and their employees work out vacation time together, so no area is left short-handed. The only other rules revolve around practical considerations, like folks in accounting and finance avoiding taking time off during the closing of a quarter.

Needed roles that make sense. In bad hierarchies, roles tend to be rigidly defined in terms of status (that is, ‘higher’ roles have more perks and are exempt from following the byzantine rules that hold for everyone else), but not very clearly defined in terms of who actually does what. Zappos recent reorganization using an approach called holacracy has been touted as a removal of hierarchy—but it’s actually more a focus on simplifying and clarifying needed roles in the organization. As Sutton points out in his article, Zappos may have gotten rid of titles that have the word ‘manager’ in them, but some people are still tasked—very clearly—with roles that include things like staffing and doing employee performance reviews. Good hierarchies make roles clear and explicit: people know what they’re responsible for achieving, and they know to whom they’re accountable for achieving it.

Pushing power down. The essence of hierarchy is the distribution of power. If you define power as “the capacity to produce change,” it makes sense that this capacity should be defined and allocated within organizations to a certain extent. If everyone in a big company were to have equal power to change the organization—its policies, practices, resource allocation, business model—the likely result would be chaos. In good hierarchies, though, power (the capacity to produce change) is pushed down and out into the organization as far as possible. The CEO, for instance, makes key organization-wide decisions not unilaterally, but rather collaboratively with his or her senior team. Each manager delegates responsibility as much as is feasible, given the skills and understanding of those who report to him or her. Each employee is accorded as much decision-making power as possible within the framework of his or her job. When you give as many people in the organization as much autonomy and authority as they’re capable of executing on well and consistently, the organization becomes more nimble, better able to respond to change, and employees become more productive and content. (This isn’t just my idea—research confirms this again and again.) The best hierarchies work to reduce the power differential throughout the organization as much as possible—and to keep doing so on an ongoing basis.

The definition of roles, rules and power that we call hierarchy may be essential for managing complexity, but we can make it reasonable and simple vs. complicated and cumbersome. If you’ve been able to do anything to make your organization’s structure work better and more gracefully, I’d love to hear about it…