I hate everyone’s boss. (Thesis Part II, The hegemony of hierarchy)

Okay - for the record, I don’t actually hate everyone's boss. I do get some pretty defensive reactions when I start talking about non-hierarchical structures and why I think they can be a good thing, though. Here’s the scoop.

Hierarchy has been the dominant model in business and organizational structures for several hundred years - and for good reason. Time and management studies helped increase efficiency, something particularly necessary in an industrial age.

Get those kids back to work!

Hierarchy has since remained the industry standard. It has persisted as a hegemony - we assume it’s the right way to run a business, because it’s the way businesses run. As resources get tighter, many organizations simply refer to the known. Who wants to get experimental with business structures in a shaky economy?

This gal! (More on that later.)

Unfortunately, hierarchies can be emotionally and unnecessarily intense workplaces. (Ask anybody that has had a strict, unreasonable, or micro-managey boss, has ever been laid off, fired, etc.)

In his book Social Intelligence Daniel Goleman discussed the ramifications positive and negative workplace interactions can have on health. He argued that rigid hierarchical models can significantly (and negatively) effect the emotional well-being of subordinates. In other words - the stricter your boss, the crappier your job, and the less emotionally healthy you might be.

But we’re managing people, not machines - right? Shouldn’t we be paying attention to this? I think so.

This doesn’t mean that hierarchies are all bad. Gerald Fairtlough outlined some of the (assumed) advantages of hierarchy as reasons why the structure persists: - Hierarchies provide familiarity - In an ideal situation hierarchies prevent chaos by systematically avoiding conflict - Hierarchies can provide clarity of roles and positions (um, that’s not in my job description Dov) - Workers can be more personally motivated (they personally identify with their specific role)

But should we assume that a hierarchy is the best model all the time? Are there alternative models we can and should be exploring? Are the advantages above (or any others) really unique to a hierarchical system?

You never know until you try.


Thanks for reading! Next I’ll be talking about alternative organizational structures and the move away from hierarchy. (::yawn::) No - I promise, it’s actually pretty neat.

A few sources for you:

Britan, G. M., Cohen, R., & Institute for the Study of Human, I. (1980). Hierarchy and society: Anthropological perspectives on bureaucracy. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Code, J. B. (1940). Dictionary of the American hierarchy. New York, New York: Longmans, Green and Co.

DiMaggio, P. (2001). The twenty-first-century firm: Changing economic organization in international perspective. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Fairtlough, G. (2005). Three ways of getting things done: Hierarchy, heterarchy, and responsible autonomy. Bridport, Dorset: Triarchy Press

Gabriel, Y. (1998). An introduction to the social psychology of insults in organizations. Human Relations, 51, 1329-1354.

Goleman, D. (2007). Social intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Hesselbein, F., & Johnston, R. (2002). On high-performance organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lynch, J. (1979). The broken heart. New York: Basic Books.

Thayer, F. C. (1981). An end to hierarchy and competition: Administration in the post-affluent world. New York : New Viewpoints.

Von Bertalanffy, L. (1969). General system theory; foundations, development, applications. New York, NY: G. Braziller.

Von Bertalanffy, L., & Laszlo, E. e. (1972). The relevance of general systems theory; Papers presented to Ludwig von Bertalanffy on his seventieth birthday. New York: G. Braziller.

Weber, M., & Andreski, S. (1983). Max Weber on capitalism, bureaucracy, and religion: A selection of texts. Boston: Allen & Unwin.


Image one: Pupils at a primary school in the Philippine capital, Manila (Source: AP)

Image two: Me with my head in a box. (Source: Jenn Rose)

Image three: n/a (Source: I have no clue, I found it on google. Help me out here)