Hierarchy is dead, proclaim people in the advanced, enlightened, guru-read organization. Hierarchy is bad, ugly, cause of all problems, constraining, limiting, demode. Let’s get rid of it.
Let’s have a chat with Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-94). Sorry, a bit late though. Anyway, he postulated the famous ‘Law of Conservation of Mass’: In a chemical reaction, matter is neither created nor destroyed. It’s conserved.
It does not just disappear under self-management practices or holacratic dogma. It disguises itself and turns up in unexpected places with a different suit: benign project leader, most-vocal-in-the-pack, natural influencers.
Hierarchy means order of things, levels of control. There are always both. To preach de-hierarchical-ization is to preach des-humanization, not the opposite.
Hierarchies can block things and be a pain. They can also facilitate things, provide resources, facilitate people’s work, create conditions, give permissions to act and function as buffers of continuity and reassurance.
Bad hierarchies are a pathology. Premature de-hierarchical-ization is a pathology as well.
Biology has hierarchies. We are alive because of hierarchies.
Actually, in the organization, the traditional top-down hierarchy is not the most powerful of all forms of influence. Peer-to-peer is greater, about 2:1 according to studies including our own in Viral Change™.
But preaching its disappearance (fake news), or singing its desired decline and death (wishful thinking) will not get you anywhere.
The treatment of this disease, of prematurely preaching death, is to learn how to use hierarchy to your advantage. When you re-frame hierarchies as the problem into hierarchies as part of the solution, then you will be in business. Social-political movements know that.
Give me a good, intelligent, committed hierarchy that works supporting the entire distributed leadership system present in any organization, and I will create an organization that flies, feels free, has permissions and goes places.
When I described and created the concept of Backstage Leadership™ years ago, I did no say we were getting rid of the top down hierarchical leadership. In fact, I gave it more homework. Now they also needed to sustain the peer-to-peer, spontaneous collaboration bottom up employee activities whilst not dictating them.
To the old saying ‘Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig’, I say don’t attempt to preach hierarchy’s death, it will waste your time, it will reincarnate, it will survive you, and, in the meantime, you’ll annoy them a hell of a lot.
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