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
Guest blogger John Milne of Leadership Down Under rounds up our series of collaboration-themed articles by sharing his advice for successful collaboration.
Collaboration sees multi disciplinary teams formed across countries and corporations to make projects happen on time and within budget. The idea is to harness the suite of experience, skills and knowledge of each team member to achieve shared goals, solve complex problems and create new products or services. Choosing the right mix takes study and judgement from leaders and managers. Use the common wisdom model.
#Technical competence means the person knows what they are talking about.
A thorough knowledge of your field of operation adds to productivity and enhances your credibility. Be at the cutting edge by contacting thought leaders and achievers worldwide.
#Strong, honest people will earn trust and respect from team members and from clients.
Definite, reliable people draw business, earn promotion and add value to their workplace. By keeping your promises every time you will have the hallmark of a special talent. Even amongst, professionals keeping promises is a challenge. It is rare. Move beyond excuses to results. Strength of mind and purpose focuses energy and channels activities.
#Commitment to your own work, your team, your company will inspire confidence.
Leaders and managers who have the well being of their staff in mind as well as efficiency produce better results through team and individual performances. Be alert to pressure points, deadlines, crises, dangers and opportunities.
#Being active and giving in social media contacts and in social interaction reaps rewards.
Just as morale is built one brick at a time, so networking takes time, focus and persistence. Blogs, Linked In, Twitter and each new platform can introduce you and your services or products to amazing new markets. Be careful to give freely and wisely in these crowded market places. Collaborations can happen through this reaching out enterprise.
# Show professional respect due to master practitioners. Jealousy and selfishness in one can sap the good work of many in each team. Get over it. Have a realistic appreciation of your own and other team member’s suite of skills. Foster interplay of ideas.
When you respect the ideas of people from all positions, you can chart a more certain path for your organisation, school or business.
Working together can be fun and fruitful. It can bring the best out of people. Start today!
By Lynda Gratton
As a business professor, I’m often asked about the nature of leadership today. When I think about what it means to be a leader right now, the first thing that comes to mind is complexity: today, leadership means being prepared to deal with many stakeholders – from NGOs that are becoming more voracious in their demands to followers who are increasingly emboldened.
This situation is not only complex, but also tough to navigate – particularly in a world that is increasingly transparent and connected. However, there are still things leaders can do to smooth the process – let me share three of them with you.
- Keep your eyes wide open More than 15 years ago my colleague Sumantra Ghoshal and I wrote business cases on three companies that were at that time leaders in their field: BP, Royal Bank of Scotland and Nokia. In one way or another, and for rather different reasons, all of these companies have since struggled. So my first observation is that in an ever more complex world, a company and its leaders are subject to continuous de-stabilizing forces. Being vigilant and observant about the nature and velocity of these forces is crucial. In complex times leaders do not believe the hype that surrounds them – they keep their eyes wide open to the reality of their world.
- Find the balance between being authentic and being a custodian The debate about leadership authenticity is an important counter balance to earlier notions of hierarchical and role based leaders. Rather than following a narrow description of what a leader is – individuals are asked to be themselves, to be authentic and by doing so to bring more of themselves to work. I believe this is an important antidote to old style leadership. However, in an organization that is becoming ever more complex, being faced with a group of leaders all of whom are idiosyncratic in their authenticity, could become confusing and distracting for those that follow. Over dinner we talked about Steve Jobs, who was indeed idiosyncratically authentic, but was also engaged in founding what would become one of the world’s great companies. For many leaders, their role is less as a founder and more as a custodian who is capable of growing and passing on to future generations of employees and shareholders the value that past generations has created. So yes, be authentic to oneself – but not so idiosyncratic that those that follow need a ‘rule book’ on how to engage with leaders. The world is complex enough without this further variable to be considered.
- Remember: it’s all about teams Thinking back to the cases mentioned earlier, I believe that if there is one underlying factor that accounts for the problems encountered by BP, RBS and Nokia it is their failure to build diverse, highly collaborative leadership teams. At RBS, CEO Fred Goodwin isolated himself from his colleagues, failed to listen to others and behaved in an increasingly idiosyncratic manner. At Nokia, the senior leadership team was for a long time extraordinarily homogenous (mostly men, mostly from Finland, mostly software engineers, mostly educated in Helsinki) and so failed to spot the rapid consumer developments in the Asian markets, or indeed the accelerating technological and design developments in Silicon Valley. At BP, the difficulties the leadership team had to integrate the US assets and build close collaboration with those that ran the US acquisitions was one reason why safety standards never became globally embedded. Simply put, as the world becomes more complex, so it becomes ever more crucial to put together leadership teams who have sufficient diversity to see beyond the hubris and myopia, and sufficient collegiality to work collaboratively with each other even when under stress.
- The Entrepreneur Within – Authentic Leadership (shanjonesblog.wordpress.com)
- Declaration and Call to Action on Women and Leadership (ILA) (leadershipspirit.wordpress.com)
- Leadership In Troubled Times (lalitaraman.com)