The Unbroken Hold Of Hierarchy

Our enduring taste for hierarchy is an anachronism in the era of the individual knowledge worker but still near impossible to extirpate.


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Strongman British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan - who was admiringly called ‘SuperMac’ - was once asked what he feared. “Events, dear boy, events”, he said.

Throughout history, even the most confident and successful empires, corporations and power structures have been dragged down by events.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an event of global, shape shifting impact. Perhaps the biggest crisis we have faced.

Because of the enormity of the challenge, confidence isn’t what it used to be. Egotism and bluster are not endearing in this context. Everything around us has changed – relationships, relevance of economic goods, route to market, ways of working, use of technology, means of learning and much more.

But when it comes to hierarchy, not much has changed at all. Our environment has changed but we have not.

From the Stone Age to the present day, man has been a sucker for hierarchy. The desire to follow confident leaders and to find security in a subordinate status relationship seems to be a lingering and pronounced trait of our primitive origins. As hunter gatherers ,chances of livelihood and security increased with attachment and deference to a leader. Being meek and docile was a good strategy for survival.

History also bears out this human predilection. After every revolutionary attempt that was meant to end hierarchy - be it the French or the Russian revolution - there emerged an even more damaging hierarchy. Even the emergence of the modern, flat, informal, knowledge based organisation has changed more of the form than substance. You may call a boss by their first name but that doesn’t change the power a boss wields over your life.

In fact, the more popular, appealing and acclaimed a revolutionary change was, the more suffocating the hierarchy it produced. The 20th century was both the century of democracy and the common man and the century of the psychopathic dictatorial leader. Just three sociopaths – Stalin, Hitler and Mao, put together – killed more than a hundred million people.

In every form of organisation and society – liberal, democratic, humanistic, profit seeking – wherever official hierarchy is abolished, unofficial hierarchies spring up and flourish. It is human nature that status is both sought and acknowledged.

Our enduring taste for hierarchy is an anachronism in the era of the individual knowledge worker but still near impossible to extirpate. It is destroying value and imposing a dictatorship of both the ends and means. To understand it better, we have to firstly understand conformism and herding. There is an inherent tendency for humans to conform internally to known groups and be suspicious of outsiders. Within the group, higher status individuals are imitated and there is a natural tendency to respond most alertly towards those higher up in the hierarchy. Any sense of individualism is knocked out early. The individuals who survive and thrive are docile followers and confident leaders. Groups that thrived were those with the greatest cohesion. Therefore mindless conformism became the norm. Even today from being fans of the football club to following absurd fashion and worshipping rock stars following the herd is as popular as ever. It is not merely a matter of taste. Even in rational domains such as electoral choices, responses during bull and bear stock markets and balancing social or religious diktats versus evidence from science, we tend to follow the herd.

Many authoritative pieces of work have shed light on this phenomenon. William Whyte wrote a business bestseller in 1956 called ‘The Organisation Man’ and in 1970, Robert Townsend penned a popular satire called up ‘Up The Organisation’. Townsend concluded that mediocrity was preferred and perpetuated so that the leadership could have lasting dominion over man. Trapped in the cubicle farm and into boxes of an organisation chart, they remain in place due to need, ambition or mindless habit.

Richard Pascale in his book ‘Managing on the Edge – How the Smartest Companies Use Conflict to Stay Ahead’ - estimated that half the time that any contention arises, its potential value is totally lost because eventual conflict is avoided. The key weakness of most organisations is their inability to tolerate conflict, foster debate and harness the outcomes for improvement and growth.

Even within organisations, cohesion is seen only within functions, subdivisions or smaller teams. You rarely find it between functions or geographies.

From a business perspective, the most heartening fact is that human beings have neuroplasticity. It means we can rewire ourselves and learn, relearn and unlearn. Moreover we can learn and transmit learning. 

Therefore, our genetic predisposition is important in determining our behaviour but not necessarily decisive. What is important is self realisation. If we realise we have biases, we are capable of correcting them.

My educated guess is that on the other side of this crisis, more than washing our hands and wearing masks, the bigger legacy will be that business executives need to take change as a given. The speed of cultural evolution and our need to rely on neuroplasticity will increase. We are in a post-industrial world beyond mechanical, cause-and-effect models and we must move to fluid, network based biological models.

Complexity, heterogeneity and size are compounding forces. The larger, more complex and heterogeneous the organisation, the more it sees internal conflict. We must know why it is difficult to change and still do so in our own best interest.

Our natural inclination may not be our best friend but it need not be our cruel master. That much self-interested willpower is desperately needed.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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