Skip to content

Hierarchies aren’t evil… but people can be!

Hierarchies aren't evil... People are!

Hierarchies aren't evil... People are!

Do you ever say to yourself “I wish there was no hierarchy in our company“?

Wouldn’t it be a perfect world if there were no hierarchy in organizations? Everyone working in harmony, collaborating to achieve their goals with no annoying boss telling anyone what to do. In this hierarchy-free world there would be no supreme ruler over the teams, only happy people delivering their work with birds chirping in the background…

OK, I realize I’m pushing it a little but people who systematically oppose to specific organizational structures often have an idealistic perspective of the world. Fortunately, the world isn’t black or white, there are many nuances.

I have had discussions about hierarchy-free organizations with many people over the last few months. Repeatedly, people bring up the same reasons why they don’t like hierarchies. From their perspective, hierarchies are bad because:

  • they don’t let employees perform their work as they wish;
  • they allow authority over people;
  • they break communication channels;
  • they create a distinction between the boss and the employees;
  • they don’t treat people equitably;
  • they offer more benefits to people at the top;
  • etc.

What if hierarchies weren’t the problem? What if the cause of these issues was somewhere else? What if the organizational structure wasn’t the real problem? Not that I am a huge fan of hierarchies, but I do not believe the organizational structure is the real problem – people are!

Let me explain my perspective.

I feel that blaming hierarchies as the reason people hate their job and feel under-appreciated is short-sighted. Organizational structures have much less to do with how people feel than the management style and attitude of the leaders.

Let me repeat that statement. I believe that the attitude and behavior of the leader has greater impact on the team members’ performance and happiness in the workplace than the organizational structure under which they operate.

You are not convinced? You might want to try this exercise.

Can you think back of a time when you felt empowered to do your job and were happy to be at work? Can you recall a time when you would invest long hours working on a project and your energy level was going though the roof? If you answered yes to these questions, ask yourself this other question “was it because of the hierarchy-free structure or the leader’s attitude”?

If you have had the opportunity to work for a great leader – someone who gives you freedom to do your work, holds you accountable for the results, is always supportive and available for mentoring, and gives you credit for your work – you will immediately realize that the leader’s behavior and attitude were the underlying causes of your satisfaction. A bad leader in a hierarchy-free organization will make everyone’s life miserable while a good manager – even in a position of authority – will get amazing commitment from his people.

It might be that the people against hierarchies are ones that never had the opportunity to work for a great leader and so, assume that the organizational structure is the issue. I wish them to find a great leader to work with because in the end, the leader’s attitude has much more to do with a happy and productive work environment than the actual structure of the organization.

  1. Leo Lachance #

    “A few years ago, as we all remember, there was a great deal of talk about the “end of hierarchy.” We would all be one big happy crew, sailing together on the same ship. Well, it hasn’t happened and it isn’t about to happen, for one simple reason : When the ship is going down, you don’t call a caucus-you give a command. There has to be somebody who says, “Enough dithering-this is it.” Without a decision maker, you’ll never make a decision. Moreover, as our corporate institutions become increasingly complex-technologically, economically, and socially-the more we need to know just who the ultimate authority is.” – Peter F. Drucker, 1997
    Very interesting Martin. Ok, for great leader with ou without hierarchy. But, what about authority without hierarchy?

    November 16, 2009
    • Thank you for the quote Leo.

      You raise an excellent question and I will certainly add more content in an upcoming post. For now, I would say that without hierarchy “authority” requires a few pre-requisites: leadership, credibility, expertise and humility. Once someone demonstrates these competencies, they are more likely to have authority over a group.

      I will give more thoughts to your question and will publish a blog post shortly.

      November 16, 2009
  2. Great post. Wrote something similar recently – and tried to include my current boss in it but he was upset about it – which is exactly why he is such a great person to work for. When you work for the right person, everything comes together consistently and better. This doesn’t mean every day is perfect or that every day you love your job – but it means that you are consistently more productive, enthusiastic and happy with your job.

    November 16, 2009
    • Indeed. The leader has such an important role. Unfortunately, organizations tend to invest energy in programs, policies, procedures, and organizational structure rather than in their leaders.

      Thank you for your comment Laura.

      November 16, 2009
  3. Good article and thanks for posting. In fact hierarchies exist in Web 2.0 world as well, albeit they are highly dynamic and continuously changing. Take for example the blog community or open source community where new people surface each day as thought leaders capable of selling a vision and organizing a group to build towards that vision, once complete, the team can disband to form a new team elsewhere.

    I think the characteristics you mention in a great leader relate to that person(s) ability to create trust, specifically as that mentioned in a recent presentation by Diana Larson I believe that this kind of professional trust is the single factor that maximizes an individual and teams capacity to create (effectiveness), which in turn is the that which most impacts motivation.

    November 16, 2009
    • Indeed. Even with the use of communities, some form of hierarchy persists. The type of leader you describe is closely related to what I called an Agile Manager.

      Thank you for posting a comment Techdoer.

      November 16, 2009
  4. I agree with you that the real problem is people. But sometimes the structure might help them do the right thing. I think a problem arises when the process or structure in place (hierarchy and especially functional silos) induces people to make bad choices.

    Give control to a human, and try to convince him afterwards that the best way for him to succeed is to let it go and stand back (see on this subject)… To make place for real change, a change in structure might be a good start when patterns are etched in stone.

    November 16, 2009
    • Great point Isabelle.

      It is indeed a problem when the structure makes people believe they are entitled to the leadership they were bestowed. If that’s the case, then the structure is a real problem. Otherwise, if leaders remain humble, receptive and collaborative the organizational structure is much less of an issue.

      Thanks for your comment.

      November 16, 2009
  5. SANJIV AUGUSTINE’s thoughts on Self Organization, Self-Discipline & Light Touch Leadership might be of interest if you liked this post.

    November 16, 2009
  6. Jim Highsmith’s post – No More Self-Organizing Teams ( might also be of interest.

    November 16, 2009
  7. There is an old saying : “by their fruit you shall know them”

    I have no trouble with leadership, and nearly none with the idea of management (if it was able to scale up as needed by the complexity it would be perfect ;-).

    But from what I have seen and heard hierarchies get dysfunctionnal so often that it worth looking at the idea more than twice. As all complex systems, it comes with a lot of side effects (especially when it starts to get wrong), but for hierarchies rarely are these effects identified and adressed.

    For works so full of complexity like IT, arts, and so on, I would prefer the use communites or holacracy as a structure that some kind of pyramid (even inverted ones). Of course it comes with other pains, but I feel it is worth this price.


    November 16, 2009

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention Hierarchies aren’t evil… but people can be! « Analytical Mind --

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: