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Is hierarchy inevitable in the workplace?

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Is hierarchy inevitable in the workplace?

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A little while ago I wrote about how power can so often corrupt the way we collaborate and how effective those collaborations are.

It emerged that when participants were given the formal tag of leader, the other members of the team felt they talked a disproportionate amount during the tasks, with these discussions also rated as poorer in terms of openness towards different points of view.

Which is far from ideal.  The thing is, despite the recent trend towards flatter organizations, hierarchy is often something we crave.

I wrote last year about a study exploring our perceptions of hierarchy, and it revealed that most employees were quite happy to work under it, just so long as it was deemed a fair system.

“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.”

This was replicated in a classic study conducted by researchers at Stanford University.  It found that if you put college freshman into a room and task them with solving a challenge, it tends to take less than fifteen minutes to create a hierarchy amongst the team.

The authors suggest that this is a natural part of being human, with children as young as five also quick to establish a hierarchy amongst their peers.  Sometimes this hierarchy is scarcely even visible.

Indeed, one study conducted by researchers at Kent State University looked at the speaking style of people when in groups.  They were studying the kind of very low frequencies that are barely visible to us, but underpin our speech.

They found that when in a group, our speech rapidly converges on the frequency level of the most dominant member of the group.  This switch typically occurs completely subconsciously, but it happens nonetheless.

So it seems rather natural that we rank one another along lines of dominance, but does it matter?  Well, despite the study I mentioned at the start of this post highlighting how leaders can stifle collaboration in groups, this only happened when the leader was formally designated as such.

When participants were conditioned to think powerfully but were not given any formal position, the group performances were left unaltered.

It should be said that this was no thanks to the puffed up leader however.  When conditioned to think powerfully, that individual began to display a more autocratic communication style, characterized by wanting to impose discipline or take control. This was true regardless of whether they had a leadership position. But they only influenced the group dynamics measured – speaking time and the climate of openness – when they had this leadership role.

When we talk about flattening hierarchies in the workplace however, it does all beg the question of whether we’re trying to rail against nature itself.

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