Despite all the talk about the strength of peer networks and the new technological utopia in which increased connectivity yields instant equality, power is still often a zero-sum game. In fact, getting organisations to do away with hierarchies is proving to be next to impossible. Notwithstanding the rich example provided by Morning Star and millions of books that call for employee empowerment, shared power arrangements remain extremely rare. On the other hand, for all its enemies, hierarchy is amazingly resilient.
Why do hierarchies persist? In 1832, as Charles Darwin travelled through Tierra del Fuego on the southernmost tip of South America, he came across a series of native tribes whose living conditions he described as ‘‘wretched.’’ He blamed their conditions directly on lack of power structures: ‘‘The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved.”[i] Since he made that assertion over 180 years ago, numerous social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of organisation were more beneficial, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii]
Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and roles serve a purpose. At its most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and promotes efficient interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity. Hierarchy also offers purely psychological benefits. Research indicates that perceptions of our rank and status in hierarchies are extremely important to us. In his book The Status Syndrome, Michael Marmot details how closely status is aligned with longevity and good health. Status even surpasses education and income, two factors that usually determine how healthy an individual can be throughout their life. An indicator of this is when Zappos gave the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of its 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their hard-won management rank and the status that accompanies it.[iii]
Whilst it seems hierarchies are inevitable and here to stay, there is no doubt that they can sometimes be dysfunctional. The way forward therefore, is to reap the benefits of hierarchy while at the same time mitigating its negatives. At our recent Future of Work (FoW) Masterclass on Power and Leadership, we asked our participants the following four key questions in order to help them assess and future-proof their organisations’ power structures:
Does power inhibit voice? The vast literature on voice has underscored the reluctance of employees lower in hierarchy to communicate with their bosses. Laboratory research on groups also illustrates a similar pattern; participants temporarily assigned a low-power position tend to voice their opinions less, even though the hierarchy was just constructed moments before. How does your organisation create a psychologically safe environment for all employees to voice their opinions and ideas?
Does power have legitimacy? To ensure legitimacy of power, formal rank and competency must always align. However, people have been shown to rise to power for reasons other than competence. For example, research indicates that we are more likely to select leaders according to their sex, age and physical attractiveness than competence. In this context, it is interesting to note that there are fewer S&P 1500 companies led by women than S&P 1500 companies led by men named John. And John is more successful if he has a deep voice, a large signature and superior golf game.[iv] How does your organisation ensure that power has legitimacy?
How do leaders cope with power? Hierarchies will harm collective success when the possession of power induces leaders to be disinhibited and less sensitive to others’ needs. A significant body of empirical research demonstrates that there is a little bit of ‘Trump’ in all powerful people. In other words, powerful people are more inclined to be rude, to lie and cheat.[v] How does your organisation help leaders to cope with this dark side of power?
What is the effect on the powerless? Profound insights from neuroscience have brought to attention the multi-dimensional effect of powerlessness on employees. For example, lack of power has been shown to have negative consequences on employee well-being, motivation and even cognition. These findings should not really surprise you. Not being able to control your environment produces feelings of helplessness and stress, and study after study has documented that stress can harm your health and well-being. How does your organisation give employees opportunities to feel powerful, so that they do not suffer the consequences associated with powerlessness?
By understanding and answering these questions, organisations can create hierarchies that lead to victory with the fewest causalities along the way. The key lesson is that the future of power lies in making peace with hierarchies and learning how to empower employees without dismantling power structures.
[i] Darwin, C. (1906). The voyage of the Beagle (No. 104). JM Dent & sons.
[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.
[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.
[iv] Sebenius, A. (2016). CEOs Behaving Badly. The Atlantic