Should workplaces avoid hierarchies and create a culture where all voices count equally?

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Hierarchies are an inherent component of the traditional workplace. However, according to recently published research, they may not necessarily be the most functional.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business research examined the way teams function when faced with threats and concluded that effective teamwork “requires not hierarchy, but egalitarianism”.

“When you look at real organisations, having a clear hierarchy within your firm actually makes people turn on each other when they face an outside threat,” stated Lindred Greer, Stanford professor of organisational behaviour.

The researchers observed teams of three students, which were required to develop and pitch a consultancy project to a prospective client. They found non-hierarchical teams facing competition with rival firms cooperated on their work, while hierarchical teams were burdened with infighting.

A second study focused on a Dutch health insurance company, where surveys were provided to 158 existing teams within the firm. The surveys measured the extent to which teams felt egalitarian or hierarchical along with their perceptions of conflict with other teams.

The results showed that hierarchical teams that felt as if they were in competition with other teams generally underperformed, while egalitarian teams did not.

“The egalitarian teams were more focused on the group because they felt like ‘we’re in the same boat, we have a common fate’,” commented the University of Amsterdam’s Lisanne van Bunderen.

“They were able to work together, while the hierarchical team members felt a need to fend for themselves, likely at the expense of others.”

What value do hierarchies have?

Context is all-important in considering the value of hierarchies.

The researchers say organisations faced with no external threat may function perfectly well with a hierarchical structure in place. Meanwhile, organisations faced with intense competition may do well to lean towards an egalitarian model to support a stronger collective performance.

This same rationale translates to individual departments within organisations, applied on a case-by-case basis.

As to what it would take to completely replace hierarchies, this is an ongoing question, with alternatives such as Holacracy espoused by some.

“I’ve always said that if there were a Nobel Prize for management, it would go to the person who finds an organisational structure that’s not based on vertical differentiation, on hierarchy, on leadership,” Greer commented.

“Other than Holacracy, there have to be ways to organise that don’t imply inequality and inequity — ways to organise that are more mutually respectful and reinforcing.”

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