The Side Effects of Hierarchy and Other Perils

A few days ago, in a con­ver­sa­tion with Amy Edmond­son of the Har­vard Busi­ness School, she sage­ly shared with me how hier­ar­chy “does not intend” its neg­a­tive side effects. She was speak­ing specif­i­cal­ly of ingrained dynam­ics that cause peo­ple to seek approval and avoid rock­ing the boat rather than ask­ing for help and speak­ing up more freely. 

She also expressed the notion — and I agree — that get­ting rid of hier­ar­chy is real­ly not fea­si­ble for most orga­ni­za­tions. Jef­frey Pfef­fer, ven­er­a­ble pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tion­al dynam­ics at Stan­ford, backs up exact­ly that view in a recent arti­cle, “Do Work­place Hier­ar­chies Still Mat­ter?” He makes the point in no uncer­tain terms that hier­ar­chy is cul­tur­al DNA. The cur­rent belief that some­how times are chang­ing is most­ly “wish­ful think­ing.” Amy’s point is that we must learn to man­age the side-effects thoughtfully.


What are some of these side effects? To me, they include pat­terns of:

• Inter­nal competition 

• Self-pro­tec­tive siloed think­ing and acting

• Fault-find­ing and blame when prob­lems arise

• Boss-pleas­ing to the detri­ment of self and others

• Dif­fi­cul­ties with ver­ti­cal collaboration

• Find­ing ways to manip­u­late the polit­i­cal system

• Overem­pha­sis on indi­vid­ual per­for­mance and accountability

• Under­em­pha­sis on actu­al sys­tems per­for­mance and accountability

• “Undis­cuss­able” lead­er­ship problems

• Over-empha­sis on exper­tise and tech­ni­cal problem-solving

• Poor change lead­er­ship and communication

• Loss of engage­ment and treat­ment of peo­ple as commodities

• Cycles of mis­trust among indi­vid­u­als, depart­ments, orga­ni­za­tion­al layers

• Cul­tures of loss self-esteem

• A wide array of deci­sion-mak­ing prob­lems and bureaucracy

• Clear loss­es to cre­ativ­i­ty, inno­va­tion and flexibility

And so on.

These are the cul­tur­al arti­facts of what, in the ide­al, is intend­ed as a rea­son­able and order­ly way of man­ag­ing work and peo­ple. But if we are not get­ting rid of hier­ar­chy, then we cer­tain­ly do need to become aware of these side-effects and learn to man­age them. In my expe­ri­ence, the conun­drum is often that these side-effects are less of a prob­lem for peo­ple who find them­selves at the top of an orga­ni­za­tion. Hence, on the one hand, if you are already at the top there is not much moti­va­tion to try to change things (or even under­stand them), and if you are in the mid­dle, the “smart” way for­ward is learn­ing how to get around the effects via a per­son­al polit­i­cal strat­e­gy rather than com­plain about them too pub­licly or try to address them too direct­ly. For peo­ple at the bot­tom, of course, it’s a mat­ter of sur­viv­ing them more than any­thing else.

I recall sit­ting with the CEO of a big finan­cial ser­vices com­pa­ny. He’d just paid a great deal of mon­ey for a well-known, nation­al con­sult­ing firm to study his orga­ni­za­tion. They con­clud­ed that he was­n’t induc­ing enough inter­nal com­pe­ti­tion among mid­dle man­agers. They had con­vinced him that “a lit­tle healthy com­pe­ti­tion” among the man­agers would be a good thing — it would stim­u­late per­for­mance, get the best from peo­ple. They told him he need­ed a new pay sys­tem, of course, with more clear­ly dif­fer­en­tial rewards and punishments.

I don’t think he had any idea what he was telling me, hav­ing swal­lowed the whole hook, that old myth that peo­ple won’t do their best unless there is a risk and threat of fail­ure behind what­ev­er boons for the win­ners might be offered. He might as well have said, “We just need to find peo­ple with ‘the right stuff.’ ”

A rea­son­able per­son will seek to under­stand these side effects. A rea­son­able per­son will not accept them at face val­ue and claim, “well, that’s just real­i­ty.” A rea­son­able per­son will want a human solu­tion. The best lead­ers I know have all shared in the con­scious­ness of hier­ar­chy’s shad­ows, the full list, and have all under­stood how per­haps the worst of these shad­ows is the hubris hier­ar­chy nat­u­ral­ly con­fers on top lead­ers, their need to be all, to know all, to be infal­li­ble. They see such things as par­tic­u­lar­ly dan­ger­ous delu­sions. They con­stant­ly work against these shad­ows in them­selves and their orga­ni­za­tions, and because they see and under­stand them and are will­ing to act, they can help oth­er peo­ple tran­scend them, too. 

These are peo­ple who have become beloved lead­ers, peo­ple to be remem­bered for the break­through of their sheer pres­ence in our lives.


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  • […] Effec­tive lead­ers see the hier­ar­chy’s shad­ows and don’t accept them as “real­i­ty.”  […]

  • The self-delu­sions and espe­cial­ly the side-effects and to which you refer become self-per­pet­u­at­ing with­in author­i­ty (fear fail flail) based orga­ni­za­tions that reward trans­ac­tion­al rather than trans­for­ma­tive lead­er­ship. Hier­ar­chy is under­stand­able but what­ev­er hap­pened to flat­tened struc­tures, empow­er­ment and engage­ment; unless there is an appre­ci­a­tion amongst deci­sion-mak­ers of their val­ue, the side-effects of the salve of hier­ar­chy won’t be addressed.

  • Hel­lo EB~

    I think you are so right that what is often miss­ing is the “appre­ci­a­tion” for efforts to flat­ten struc­tures, empow­er peo­ple and engage them. They can­not be some new fad that deci­sion-mak­ers think will sim­ply make them more mon­ey. It is about the root cause of human­ness and its dis­re­gard. Thanks for drop­ping by and leav­ing a comment! 

    All the best

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