Over the past few years there has been a growing sense that hierarchy in our organizations is strangling innovation, collaboration and all of those other things that are the lifeblood of the ‘new way of working’.
I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. I’ve already written previously about research showing that employees can often quite enjoy working in a hierarchy, just so long as the hierarchy operates in a fair manner.
A recent study from Columbia Business School and INSEAD delves deeper into the topic. They explored the (literally) rarefied air of over 30,000 Himalayan climbers over the past 100 years to try and understand the role and impact of hierarchy during high pressure situations.
Interestingly, the paper found that hierarchy can have both positive and negative consequences, contributing to both more successful summits but also higher fatality rates.
The paper suggests that a distinct and clear hierarchy can provide teams with coordination, organization and a reduction in conflict during high pressure situations.
“These processes explain why a strong hierarchy can help expeditions reach the top of the mountain: like the symphonic movement of a beehive, hierarchy helps the group become more than the sum of its parts,” the authors say.
The downside of hierarchy
Of course, it isn’t all rosy, and the authors are at pains to point out that hierarchy can also foster a culture of inhibition where team members are forced to follow the herd rather than speak up.
This was critical in a climbing environment where people are forced to react and respond to the rapidly changing environment. Being unable to speak up in such an environment can lead to catastrophe.
So what is the right amount of hierarchy?
The researchers suggest that the key is to identify what the barriers are that prevent low-ranking members of the team from speaking up, and working to overcome those barriers. That is more important than removing hierarchy entirely.
“Take surgery teams: the surgeon needs to be in charge to facilitate coordination. But lower-power members of the team also need to be able to speak up. This is why surgery teams put nurses in charge of the all-important check-list of procedures,” they say.
The researchers also point out that any group need clear norms as to what constitutes constructive communication, especially as norms are hard to budge once they’ve become embedded.
The authors are clear however that hierarchy offers multiple benefits to organizations and should not be dismissed out of hand.
“Whether a team is climbing a mountain in the Himalayas or tackling a high-stakes business challenge in the boardroom, it’s critical to leverage the coordination benefits of hierarchy while also embracing an environment that encourages and rewards participation and input from all levels,” they conclude.