Decentralization has been a hot topic of organizational development for decades, but hierarchy still has a stronghold on management and organizations. With millennials becoming the largest (and most racially diverse) generation in the U.S. workforce, and with a rise in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, it seems that organizations are finally thinking critically about hierarchy. Does it serve the work?
Let’s first get clear on what hierarchy even is…
Hierarchy is a system of assigned status and authority; it’s about defining who has power over whom, which typically corresponds to compensation and title. It assumes that power is best placed in the hands of people who have control over others, and, in practice, it presupposes that having control over others is worth more money. Hierarchy is part of a larger system of oppression that keeps the same people in power. It’s not a coincidence that most businesses and organizations are run by white people. Hierarchical structure disincentivizes power-sharing and perpetuates a scarcity mindset. Have you ever advocated for a promotion for yourself or someone else and been told, “Not everyone can be a manager!” If you haven’t been told that, by the way, chances are you’re white and a cisgender man. Few organizations self-identify as hierarchical (think about how that recruitment strategy would land for you as a job-seeker), but if becoming a supervisor is seen as the path for growth in your organization, then you’re probably in it with the rest of us.
The tricky thing about hierarchy is that we believe it’s about organizational structure, clear decision-making, and order, but all of those characteristics can exist independent of hierarchy. The alternative to hierarchy is not disorder and chaos; rather, it’s about recentering organizational structure around function. For example, decision-making can be clear without defaulting to people with more positional power. In this alternate reality, maybe your president or executive director isn’t your highest paid employee. Maybe your supervisors don’t make decisions on behalf of their teams. Maybe your policy and budgetary responsibilities aren’t held by a “leadership” team but rather a “resourcing” team. We have to untangle function from status because they are not the same. The roles and functions in your organization should serve your end client and your company’s broader community, not the people with power and status within your organization.
Why does this sound so radical? Because we’ve been socialized and conditioned to believe that that’s the way it is. I’ve seen it time and again: the very person who felt so disempowered by their supervisor becomes a supervisor and starts micromanaging others. Middle managers are often frustrated by their own supervisors, department heads, or CEOs and “manage up.” How many of those middle managers, do you think, have awareness that they are probably also being “managed up” by their own employees? And if we’re all working so hard to navigate the power structures within our organizations, we have to ask ourselves, is this structure actually serving the work? As Carol Sanford writes in her book The Regenerative Business (2017), “A workforce made up of people who can see what needs to be done and who will step up to do it is far more powerful than a workforce that depends on delegation to know what to do,” (p. 46).
Hierarchy creates lateral challenges, too. Most of us have encountered the power-grabbing colleague who steals ideas, takes undue credit, works way too many hours, or sucks up to the boss. I think we can probably all admit to a moment when we were calculating about how we showed up in a meeting, whether or not we shared an idea, or what kind of praise we gave a colleague. Hierarchy rewards us for being strategic about whom we build relationships with in the workplace. Again, is this serving the work?
Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations (2014), aptly sums up the problem with hierarchical power and status within organizations. He writes, “The concentration of power at the top, separating colleagues into the powerful and the powerless, brings with it problems that have plagued organizations for as long as we can remember. Power in organizations is seen as a scarce commodity worth fighting for. This situation invariably brings out the shadowy side of human nature: personal ambition, politics, mistrust, fear, and greed. At the bottom of organizations, it often evokes the twin brothers of powerlessness: resignation and resentment,” (p. 61).
Yes! Our default organizational design is a caste system of haves and have-nots. Increasing diversity or plurality of voice is an important piece, but if we’re not questioning the underlying power structure, we’re going to continue to replicate this dynamic. So even if you, for instance, expand your leadership or management team to include more voices, there will still be the people who are on the team and the people who aren’t.
The clue to solving this puzzle is getting clear and transparent about how every person and every team is contributing to the mission and serving the end client. We have to ask ourselves: what organizational structure centers the organization’s mission and clients? We have to untangle status and function so that everyone in the organization has power and is oriented towards the work, instead of being oriented around and dependent on a concentrated power structure. As Laloux calls for, let form follow function. He asks, “What if we could create organizational structures and practices that didn’t need empowerment because, by design, everybody was powerful and no one powerless?” (p.62). His question is somewhat rhetorical because he knows there are organizations that have achieved this. Many don’t because getting there means decentralizing power and letting go of most of what we’ve learned about optimizing organizations.
Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations: A guide to creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness. Nelson Parker.
Sanford, C. (2017). The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.