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Do employees secretly want hierarchy?

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Do employees secretly want hierarchy?

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A 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.

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