4 Things I Learned from the article "Should Hierarchy Disappear in the Workplace"


This article was written by Dylan Walsh in the Stanford Business School Periodical.

Much of the article was based upon knowledge from Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior. Walsh begins the article, “Should Hierarchy Disappear in the Workplace,” by mentioning two known business beliefs: defined hierarchy and commanding leadership. Surprisingly though, one of these is wrong. Greer states that real organizations that have a clear hierarchy within the firm result in people turning against each other when they face an outside threat. Effective teamwork in the midst of threats requires egalitarianism, a culture in which all voices matter, not a hierarchy that focuses more on centralized power.

Greer is not the only one who shares in this belief. The article mentions studies whose research backs this belief. The results from research reported that hierarchical teams that felt like they were competing against other teams and generally underperformed. Egalitarian teams, on the other hand, did not underperform. Below, I included two studies mentioned in the article that were performed by Lisanne van Bunderen of the University of Amsterdam, Daan Van Knippenberg of Drexel University, and their research team.

Study One

The first study was an experiment conducted with teams of three students. These students developed and pitched a consultancy project to a prospective client. Some of these teams were non-hierarchical, while members of other teams arbitrarily received titles: senior consultant, consultant, junior consultant. Some teams faced no rivals, while others were told they were competing with a rival firm for clients. The researchers found that the subset of hierarchical teams facing competition with rival firms struggled with infighting, while the egalitarian teams cooperated on their work.

Study Two

The second study was conducted within a Dutch health insurance company. Surveys were handed out to 158 existing teams within the firm. The surveys measured the degree to which teams felt egalitarian or hierarchical and how much they perceived conflict with other teams in the company. Company managers also rated team performance. The results were the same as in the first experiment.

Van Bunderen believes that egalitarian teams are more focused as a group, because they feel as though they are in the “same boat” and share a common fate. This shared mentality prompts them to work together. On the flipside, hierarchical team members feel as though they have to fend for themselves because they are at different levels. They are willing to fight to protect themselves even if it is at the expense of others. So the question is, should hierarchy in the workplace be avoided? If so, how can existing hierarchical organizations rearrange themselves? How do leaders lead then?

Greer emphasizes the fact that we need to consider specific contexts when answering the previous questions. For example, if there is no external threat, then a hierarchical structure should be fine. But for a company facing a competitive market, egalitarian tendencies actually may be best in order to encourage employee cooperation and performance. The reality is that hierarchy at work is unavoidable, but if properly moderated, many problems can be avoided and solved.

Walsh finishes the article with a thought-provoking quote by Greer, “I’ve always said that if there were a Nobel Prize for management, it would go to the person who finds an organizational structure that’s not based on vertical differentiation, on hierarchy, on leadership,” she says. “Other than Holacracy, there have to be ways to organize that don’t imply inequality and inequity-ways to organize that are more mutually respectful and reinforcing.”