Do people need hierarchy?

Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling thinks that, instead of reinforcing and perpetuating hierarchy through selective education, we should concentrate on breaking hierarchies down. Part of his argument (I think) is that hierarchies are unmanageable and in any case, even the cleverest people sometimes make decisions that are irrational or sub optimal.

That maybe so and perhaps reducing the importance of hierarchy would make life better for us all. The trouble is, whenever you try to break down hierarchies, they have a horrible habit of reasserting themselves.

I have been on a number of management development programmes over the years which have involved experiments in leaderless of self-managed teams. In every case, some form of hierarchy has emerged within the group and someone has ended up taking control. Where the participants have been from the same company, it is often the senior person who ends up giving the orders. If the task requires specialist knowledge then the expert may find himself propelled into a leadership position. In other situations, it was just the most charismatic, mouthy or bullying member of the group who took over.

What strikes me every time I am involved in something like this is how uncomfortable people are without hierarchy. They might say that they are not status conscious or that they despise concepts like class and rank, but subconsciously, even the most egalitarian people seem to want some sort of hierarchy and if it isn’t there, they will create it.  

This is hardly surprising. Even children create hierarchies among themselves. In all but a few societies, there are formal structures of leadership with ranks and titles. Humans have been hierarchical for thousands of years and we are conditioned to accept the idea of leaders and followers from an early age.

So, do human beings have some innate need for hierarchy or do we just accept it as a result of social conditioning? And, given that hierarchy continually reasserts itself, is it futile to pretend that we will ever rid ourselves of it completely?

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6 Responses to Do people need hierarchy?

  1. There’s something very different between a small team – say twenty people – and a very large corporation. One will have a very shallow hierarchy, while the other will have a deep one. In the first case, hierarchy will solve some problems, at fairly low cost, while in the other hierarchy will have significant costs in that decisions will be taken by people with very degraded information.

    Secondly, teams that change leader based on the situation, or deference to experts, are not in any meaningful sense hierarchy.

  2. Rick says:

    Marcin – I’ve never seen a team operate for any length of time where leaders change based on the situation or on expertise. Even in the more informal groups, someone usually emerges as leader.

    You are right to say that hierarchy brings its problems in large organisations but they are almost impossible to manage without some sort of formal structure.

    A former colleague of mine has done some research (which I wish he’d get his finger out and publish) which indicates that once an organisation reaches a certain size, usually around 80 people, it needs formal systems, processes and management structures. You can fly by the seat of your pants in a small company but once it starts to grow, personal authority and relationships are not enough, on their own, to make the thing work.

  3. That doesn’t fundamentally answer my point that methods of organisation, whether formal or informal, should always be identified as hierarchy. As far as I can see, that’s just an abuse of language.

    A particular point that I’d like to take is that even if you have someone who is charged with taking decisions most of the time, in order to break deadlock, but they have weak authority, and initiation of activity is purely facilitative, and depends on explicit consent, that doesn’t look much like leadership or hierarchy, but that is a common way for smallish teams to operate. Meanwhile, on a large scale, we can use various (interactive?) protocols to break decisional deadlocks.

    I’m afraid that you rely too much on assumption and question-begging, and not enough on argument and evidence here.

  4. Rick says:

    Marcin – what exactly is your point?

    Why do you have a problem with the idea of an informal hierarchy? If you try and work with a group of people, you ignore the informal hierachy at your peril.

    As for evidence, I have worked in organisations for 20 years and I have never seen a leaderless team remain leaderless for any length of time. Someone always assumes control. A form of hierarchy eventually evolves.

    If you have any evidence of leaderless, egalitarian groups, sustained for more than a matter of weeks, I’d be interested to see it.

  5. People do need heirachies, as do all all higher mammals. it goes beyond nature and into nurture.

    Chris makes some good arguments, but ‘flat’ organisations like legal or accounting partnerships? They are terrible places to work; everyone is the boss!

  6. Pingback: Bloggers create their own lords « Flip Chart Fairy Tales

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