Part II: Our love/hate relationship with hierarchies

This is the second part of a two-part series on our love/ hate relationship with hierarchies. You can read part I here.

A #nomanagement movement seems to have taken root because of the failings of hierarchies, and the management style associated with them, in complex environments (see Part I). Now, even the word ‘manager’ often has a certain stigma associated with it. Somewhat consequentially, flat organizations, or organizations that drastically cut out middle management, have gained notable popularity usually with admirable intentions to create better conditions for surviving a complex environment.

In particular, concepts such as self-organization and networking are often bandied about as near-panaceas to our complex problems, and flat organizations the vehicle in which they can be (more easily) delivered. In other words, without management in the way, particular ‘antibodies’ such self-organization and networking can emerge unimpeded to fight the challenges of complexity, but does it really work like this? I’m not sure. But here’s what I do believe:

Status and authority, especially when they are used to coerce or control others can, without a doubt, lead to the suppression of vital organizational building blocks such as workplace safety, autonomy and transparency. However, while commonly associated with management, these qualities are not exclusive to management. They are also inherently wielded (sometimes unknowingly, sometimes not) through experience, knowledge, gender, and even race. By removing the management position, power dynamics do not simply cease to exist in the organization. In many cases, what remains is a ‘shadow’ hierarchy in which certain individuals will find themselves in positions of unofficial power but lacking any official accountability.

Interestingly, when humans self-organize together, many cultures have a tendency to form hierarchies. As a result, a truly equal workplace would probably be confusing for many of us as a social species. Working in such an environment would require a serious amount of unlearning old constructs and relearning new ones — perhaps why companies such as Google, Valve and Zappos have had mixed results from shifting to a flat structure. (Google inadvertently discovered the qualities that make a great ‘modern’ manager in the process).

A self-organized group is any group that arranges and conducts itself without imposition from outside the group. To be clear, self-organization is not necessarily the same as no hierarchy, #nomanagement, or flat-structure approaches. It just means that such a group has the freedom and ability to choose their own structure (and does so), something that existing hierarchical structures generally do not facilitate.

It is a common misconception that self-organization is inherently a desirable behaviour and something that we should ‘work towards’. In fact, one might say it is the default behaviour for any group of people whom you put together; they will attempt to organize themselves regardless. Yes, we want those closest to the problems determine how best to solve them, but whether they self-organize in a ‘desirable’ way, however, depends on many factors, including personalities and cultures within the group and what ‘desirable’ means to you, and to them.

Self-organization can also lead to networked structures. These are typically better able to use their many connections to adapt faster in a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment. They often also tend to evolve in order to work around the inefficiencies of imposed hierarchies, such as restricted communication or bureaucratic process. This is the moment when ‘knowing someone’ can speed things up. This is the grapevine, which is essentially nothing but a network operating around the formal communication structure of a hierarchy. Subsequently, networks and hierarchies can and do co-exist.

Networks however that are left unchecked can accelerate potentially irresponsible behaviour or information; think about hate speech or misinformation that can spread uncontrollably fast throughout social media. Its the reason why rumours of acquisitions or layoffs tend to reach you faster than the official announcements (albeit often inaccurate).

Hierarchy or not?

As with many issues of today, the choice is often pitched as an either-or. You are a hierarchy or not. A flat-organization or not. Yet is it necessary to be so black-and-white? All I really see is 500 shades of grey.

There are two sides to every coin. Self-organization and networking are of course worthy pursuits to help us tackle VUCA environments, but even antibodies don’t always work as one might hope and instead are sometimes even destructive. Particularly as agile coaches, we should be acutely aware (perhaps more than most) that in a complex environment, there is no one best way for everyone. That would be awfully similar to Frederick Taylor’s “manager-knows-best” approach as mentioned in Part I.

What if the question is not so much about getting rid of hierarchies altogether or making them flat, but about making them better. In the same vein, the question is also not how can we remove managers, so much as how can we make managers better. Perhaps, one might consider hierarchy to be more akin to a rider on a horse, providing course correction from time to time but otherwise having little control over the animal.

By understanding context and learning from our own mistakes and those of others, we can be more diligent in guiding the structural development of the organization to avoid known pitfalls. There is no one best solution. If there was, everyone would be using it. Instead, we must understand the advantages and disadvantages of the solutions that do exist within our own context, and do our best to improve with the knowledge that we have.



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Austin Mackesy-Buckley

An Agile Coach and dad who writes from time to time about his thoughts and experiences of work and life.