It may be time to ditch hierarchies

We view careers as opportunities to progress through top-down hierarchies. But do hierarchies actually work?

We are indoctrinated from the earliest age to accept hierarchies, starting with the defined structure in most family homes. ‘Hand-me-downs’ and size differences between siblings underscore top-down relationships in the home, while ‘might is right’ in the playground clarifies who is to be respected.

This hierarchical model continues throughout our academic journey with clear structures at school. At university this continues with chancellors, vice-chancellors, principals and heads of faculties.

By the time we enter the world of work we are accustomed to these power structures, and view our career paths as opportunities to progress through top-down hierarchies. But are hierarchies popular because they actually work?

The argument for less-hierarchical or ‘flatter’ organisations centres around there being less empire-building among leaders, less ‘siloed thinking’ so therefore improved collaboration, and greater innovation due to there being fewer layers. Theoretically employee voice should be stronger because it’s no longer being filtered through various levels of management.

Alternatives include self-managed teams wherein the leader is not visible and everyone takes ownership for collective success. Other models include hybrids wherein (a) there is no company-wide hierarchy but within teams there are hierarchies or (b) there is a hierarchy but within the teams themselves the structure is flat.

A number of organisations have introduced these self-managed teams or hybrids. While seemingly successful, there is insufficient empirical evidence that they are better placed than their competitors with hierarchical models. Business environments are complex; meaning there are many factors that contribute to an organisation’s success. So to gauge the impact of structure with any certainty is difficult.

Even in self-managed models unofficial hierarchies can emerge. This can be because a long-serving staff member is regarded as more senior. They have institutional memory so de facto become the leader. Similarly being the technical specialist can confer a mantle of decision-making authority. A person’s charisma and character might also lead to others deferring to the ‘louder voice’ in the team.

Hierarchies are often reflected in the physical space in organisations: with the C-suite on the top floor, middle management on the middle floors, administrative functions lower down, and reception, logistics, warehousing etc. on the ground floor. Being physically structured in this way brings an additional cultural issue.

Recent reports (CIPD, Parker Review) have evidenced the absence of diversity in senior leadership teams in the majority of organisations, which are mostly hierarchical structures.

The implication is that even if there is difference in the lower ranks they are ‘out of sight’ and consequently ‘out of mind’. Sameness perpetuates sameness, aggravated by the absence of difference.

This sameness in the C-suite sends an unspoken message that to succeed one needs to ‘look like this’.

These hierarchical structures are designed for ‘command and control’, favouring a parent-child relationship between employer and employee. In my family the parent-child relationship has evolved as my children have grown into young adults, and I find them pushing against boundaries my wife and I have set. At times this can be painful. But I have learnt that treating them as equals with a voice and not as junior members of the family often leads to better conversations and agreement rather than conflict.

In the workplace this also holds true. Moving away from a parent-child relationship atypical of hierarchical organisations to a peer-to-peer relationship means both parties can be heard and contribute their best selves in the workplace.

Giving up power is not easy, which is probably why so many organisations remain hierarchical. But giving up power is the only way to empower others.

Shakil Butt is the former HR and OD director of Islamic Relief Worldwide