Working in hierarchical ways

Working in hierarchies in a hierarchical way is bad for our brains, our physical health and our relationships. Yet it appears we are hard wired to keep score, assess rank and react to changes in others' status, as a 2008 study by the National Institutes of Health discovered (link from Harold Jarche). If this fixation with hierarchical ways of working was all we had going for us, there wold be no hope for collaborative enterprises or the reinvention of higher ed.

I've got lots of experience with working in hierarchies in non-hierarchcial ways. I've found ways to take initiatives and spawn innovations regardless of the stagnant outlooks above me. I've thrived on being self motivated and intrinsically rewarded while colleagues and managers seemed addicted to external motivators. I've been inclined to question authority and function with autonomy while others were dependent on the command and control of higher-ups. While my non-hierarchcial way of working got me into trouble and excluded me from promotions on occasion, more often it provided me with additional opportunities, accomplishments and personal satisfaction.

As I've psyched out those who get completely caught up in working in hierarchical  ways, I've identified four patterns which can eventually become a passing phase of further personal development:

  • Unmet dependency needs: When our own parents have seemed unreliable, unavailable or unsupportive to us, we become starved for positive parental figures. We remain dependent on those who seem bigger than us, more powerful and overbearing. We hope to get much-needed approval, recognition and validation from these authority figures. Hierarchies provide big daddies or big mommies at the top of the pyramid which satisfies these cravings.
  • Living in the past: Unresolved issues make our past history seem very important to us. We experience our lives as stuck stories where the same things repeatedly happen to us. While dwelling in our past, we treasure reminders of poignant memories, traditions and rituals. We take comfort in legacy procedures, unchanging policies and unquestioned routines which hierarchies enforce.  
  • Symbolic gratification: We are poor judges of what will deeply satisfy us when acting out unresolved power issues. We need lots of stuff to prove to others and convince ourselves that we're powerful, confident and worthy of respect. We overcompensate for insecurities, victim stories and repeated incidents of powerlessness with very showy packages. We accumulate big things as indisputable proof. Hierarchies meet this need with big benefits, big paychecks for the higher ups and big responsibilities over others. 
  • Over-thinking conflicted issues: While we dealing with lots of irrational urges, we keep a lid on them with excessive rationality. We try to justify our actions and rationalize our decisions to keep from flipping our lid. We idealize our rationality and over-think any issue with emotional components.  Hierarchies march these inclinations with excessive meetings, policy manuals and procedural compliance.

For either collaborative enterprises or lower cost/higher quality higher ed to function effectively, the participants need to be able to:
  1. self-structure their activities, take initiative and make adjustments to our conduct based on outcomes and other kinds of feedback
  2. take satisfaction in their processes and outcomes without getting formally evaluated, rated or scored
  3. get creative when faced with symptoms of deeper problems, complex system dynamics or dilemmas that defy problem solving
  4. collaborate with others who are valued for their diversity, consulted for their unique outlooks and treated as equals

While working in hierarchical ways, we cannot meet any of these four prerequisites:
  1. we cannot structure our own activities but we can comply with orders, wait to be told what to do and hide behind our job descriptions
  2. we cannot feel intrinsically rewarded but we can get motivated by how we rank, fit in and compete with others
  3. we cannot get creative but we can give lip service to the need for action and make a show of handling the problem with lots of busywork
  4. we cannot collaborate with others but we can envy their successes, demonize their differences and dismiss commonalities with them
When working in hierarchical ways can be framed as a passing phase in personal development, wounds from each individual's troubled past would need to be healed. Sore points would lose their sensitivity. Sacred cows would get slaughtered. Hot buttons would get dismantled. Thorny issues would get resolved. By renewing his/her mind, each could then be free to work in non-hierarchical ways. The hard wiring to work in hierarchical ways could fall into disuse.

For more see my next post: Healing the wounded workforce


  1. Great post Tom!

    Loved the four patterns, very astute really. Don't forget the "comparison-trick": pay raise in a certain company was 1% this year, so some people told me their "2% pay raise wasn't that bad, compared to others"

    I used to be able to work in wirearchical ways in a hierarchy - until I moved up the food chain and came too absorbed by the clueless middle layer

  2. Thanks Martijn- the comparison trick fits a couple of the four patterns as I see it: It values the authority above who dictates the pay raise and it provides a symbol of being superior to those who compare unfavorably.

    The consensus among the clueless can be very spellbinding. I've been there too.

  3. Tom;
    Great summary of behavioural patterns!

    In addition to these being symptomatic of hierarchal organizations, I am learning that these are patterns evident in organizations where their nature is perceived as being mechanistic, with predictable, uni-directional cause & effect a key underlying principle. And certainly hierarchical orgs are part of that group or container.

    In other words, I think you are describing characteristics of most organizations with any applied structure (assuming I am using the word "hierarchical organization" as you intended). And so your observations have a much broader reach.

    Cheers, Paul Reeves

  4. Thanks for putting this post into a larger context, Paul. I agree these behavioral patterns can emerge from any structure presumed to be mechanistic, linear or causal. However, the patterns themselves are organic, non-linear and acausal. These behavior patterns pose "chicken & egg" problems of which came first: the container or the content? / the structure or the behavior?

    What you term as "applied structure", I often refer to as "imposed structure" and "excessive structure". I'm suggesting that people who find these structures/containers to be attractive, useful, comforting, valuable, etc -- will exhibit these behavior patterns. The structure does not cause the behavior or not cause it. The structure and behavior collaborate and co-create the persistence of these working arrangements. The causal linearity seems to be more of an illusion to justify and rationalize the structure, rather than a realistic appraisal of the dynamics.