Do employees secretly want hierarchy?

hierarchicalA major chunk of social business revolves around the notion that our organizations will function better if we begin to tap into the knowledge of all employees.  That much is probably hard to dispute, and it’s led many organizations to attempt to flatten their structures in a bid to both shorten communication channels and ensure information flows faster throughout the business.

The hypothesis is that this will encourage a more sense and respond style of business, whilst also giving employees from wherever they may be with the chance to impress based upon their knowledge rather than their status.  As hypothesis go, it’s an extremely attractive one.  Except new research suggests that employees might not be that keen on it.

“Hierarchy can often be full of injustice,” the researchers say. “But for some tasks and goals, people are better able to do their job in that environment than in a more egalitarian setup.”

The research team focused their study around what’s known as compensatory control theory.  This suggests that people like to see the world as relatively orderly and structured.  They took this belief and transposed it into our working lives to question whether people might not actually prefer an organization with some structure and hierarchy in it.

The researchers tested their theory by asking participants to read a series of articles that described the world in some way or other.  The unifying feature of each article was that they described it as uncontrolled or random in some way.  Suitably primed, the participants were then asked for their desire for hierarchy in their workplace.  They were asked questions such as “In a business, it’s important for one person to make the final decision” or “Businesses are most effective when there are a few people who have the influence to get things done.”  

It emerged that the participants who had previously read the articles were more likely to agree with those statements, which is perhaps not that surprising.  The researchers conclude with a caveat that the dictatorship people hope for in their workplace should be a benevolent and fair one, otherwise “if people feel the hierarchy is arbitrary or unfair, the benefits quickly disappear”.

As research goes, I’m not altogether convinced by this one, not least because it kind of goes against what I believe to be the case, but I’m inclined to think that priming people in such a way is liable to create un-natural responses.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


9 thoughts on “Do employees secretly want hierarchy?

  1. Cheers Adi. Not exactly what us enlightened lot want to hear but there is something about the inherent need for control and structure that people have come to love and accept with hierarchy. I've been in situations where moving people away from me as their boss with all the answers to a more participative and collaborative environment scared the living daylights out of folk. Have you seen anything of organisations who try and complement both social and traditional hierarchy ?

    • Thanks Barry. It's a case of different strokes for different folks I guess. Probably the best example of the kind of split environment you mention are the various skunkworks style teams that have been created within organisations over the years. They've tended to be a bit more lassez faire, even if the main org is hierarchical (as you suspect Lockheed Martin were for the original skunkworks team).

  2. Adi this is a very, very interesting post. For me, it touches on challenges organisations face when they want to promote more collaboration, innovation and engagement.

    I have a very inclusive and collaborative style of leadership and I'm amazed how often when you step back and create the space, that is interpreted as a vacuum and someone else fills it, but with another form of power.

    I believe that most people secretly prefer the certainty that comes with power than the uncertainty that comes with responsibility (and responsiveness).

    I've covered this in a similar context here:


    • Thanks Nick. I suppose the other thing to consider is that people tend to like what is familiar. Most organisations are coming from a place where hierarchy is familiar, so shifting from that is always going to lead to a degree of uncertainty as it is simply unfamiliar to most people.

  3. Adi where I work we are currently going through a culture project including the setup of several networking groups. Although everyone is positive initially the challenge is always the change as you state over unfamiliarity. The issue you have is that you loose key elements across areas with a purely hierarchical environment as the ability for many to express themselves is not given often. Any amendment to the internal workings of a company must be seen and actively communicated and supported to allow for any fruition in a new approach. Compensatory Control Theory to me just affirms human nature over the power of persuasion.

  4. Managers must love hearing that kind of thing. "Employees can't possible think for themselves, let us do it for them…"

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