“The time for a management reset has come,” said University of Southern California Ph.Ds Edward E. Lawler III and Christoper G. Worley in a 2011 Business Week Column.
“While hierarchies were the favored form of organizing in the past, they should not be the key design orientation in the next era of business…The best alternative is to abandon them and create an egalitarian workplace of shared responsibilities.”
Numerous other articles in the same vein, written by respected authors and published in reputable business journals, appeared around the same time. Yet hierarchical management continues to dominate the business world and the dream of the egalitarian workplace seems to have faded. Why?
As surprising as it sounds, people like hierarchies. A 2012 study done at the Stanford Graduate School of Business gave participants organizational charts, some of them more hierarchical, some more egalitarian. Those who were given the charts of hierarchical companies found them far easier to understand and were more likely to express a favorable view of the business. Those who were shown the more egalitarian companies’ charts, on the other hand, complained that their structure was unclear.
Though we all rant about terrible bosses now and then, most people prefer some sort of pecking order; it can provide both simplicity and clarity. Who you need to talk to about what, which positions come with greater pay and responsibility, and what you need to do to meet expectations are all spelled out in the hierarchically organized company. Egalitarianism is comparatively messy. Job descriptions can be overly fluid, leading to misallocation of human resources. Without a leader at the helm, direction can shift too quickly or dramatically and employees may be reluctant to volunteer for riskier projects in which success is uncertain. A hierarchical structure with a leader empowered to coordinate others’ time and effort solves such problems.
But that’s not to say that it’s impossible to organize a business with an egalitarian structure. Seattle-based Valve – creators of the popular Counter Strike, Half-Life, and Portal videogame franchises – famously has no managers. Gabe Newell, Valve’s CEO, explained at a 2012 conference:
“A lot of times I make people better by getting stupid, distracting, bureaucratic stuff off their desk…In theory, I’m at the top of some hierarchy, right? So I say, (to new employees) ‘Well, you give me something to do.’”
But he added that this style works at Valve because the videogame industry is in a near constant state of artistic and technological flux. Managers, he went on to note, are good for institutionalizing procedures. For most companies, having well-established plans and policies in place are essential to the continued function of the organization and even the happiness of their workers. In many ways, it’s a matter of certainty. All human beings want to know where they stand and what’s likely to happen further down the road. Though we may romanticize – and sometimes even crave – egalitarian systems, hierarchies continue to fulfill our need for certainty.
If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, we recommend the following readings: