Hierarchy at Work

Hierarchy at Work


Hierarchy is everywhere. Take the animal kingdom: hierarchy exists within a pride of lions, a pair of birds, a waddle of penguins (yes, we had to look that one up!) and in our closest primate, chimpanzees.

Researchers at Stanford conducted a detailed review of research on hierarchy, and found that groups where all members have equal status don't exist. They also found that only minutes of observation are needed for hierarchy to be revealed, and that when forming relationships, both humans and animals begin to organise themselves into levels of status and power from their very first meeting.

So if we can't escape hierarchy, how can we harness it and use it to the benefit of our organisations?

hierarchy at work training facilitation

One approach is to re-frame hierarchy as accountability: it's not who makes the decisions, but rather who is responsible for their outcomes. You've heard this before: with great power comes great responsibility. Another way is to view role seniority as an opportunity for mentorship, not only providing guidance and knowledge transfer, but also equally empowering mentor and mentee.

Flat hierarchies can lead to a lack of clarity of who to turn to for advice, or who is responsible for decision-making, especially in larger organisations. Creating a responsibility assignment matrix is a good way to add clarity without levels of authority. Also known as a RACI matrix, the tool details for given activities who should be responsible, accountable, consulted and informed.

Healthy hierarchies

Here's how hierarchy can be harnessed as a positive force in your organisation:

  • Clarity of responsibility: use easily-understandable rules (e.g. a responsibility assignment matrix) to provide clarity on responsibilities for different activities.
  • Well-defined roles: use clear roles definitions based on responsiblity and accountability rather than control.
  • Diffused decision-marking: centralised power can be spread out throughout the organisation.
  • Mentorship: by encouraging managers to take a mentorship role, hierarchy can be harnessed to provide support and guidance.

In traditional work environments, a hierarchy of authority can create a clear career path for employees within an organisation. Positions act as career milestones and recognition for those who climb the ladder. By quantifying an increase in knowledge, skills and experience, job titles provide motivation beyond monetary reward.

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Another consideration when analysing the effects of hierarchy is that of communication. Communication paths—especially those between departments—are more easily established in the presence of hierarchy. A manager can become a single point of contact, providing for a clear route for relevant information to pass horizontally through an organisation.

As they say, too many cooks spoil the broth, and the same applies in a knowledge work environment. Hierarchies allow information to be filtered and prioritised as it is escalated up or cascaded down the management chain.

“If you want to hire great people and have them stay, you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win.”

—Steve Jobs

At DodoWorkPlay, we believe a healthy hierarchy is just one of the ways a company can create a more productive and rewarding work environment. We provide bespoke practice-based training to companies to meet their business needs. Learn about our training for businesses, for more effective and engaging learning.