The unconscious desire for hierarchy

Natural hierarchy emerges between two people when one sees themselves as relatively more dominant and the other sees themselves as relatively more submissive in the relationship, and this pattern is accepted by both. Influence in such a relationship is asymmetric (it flows more in one direction than the other) and it is accepted. At work, people like it when this happens.

To make this hierarchical pattern possible, people perceive another’s dominance or submissiveness as different from how they see themselves. The more people see themselves as dominant, the more they perceive the other as submissive. And vice versa. Especially in work relationships and when people care about the outcome (Tiedens et al, 2007).

When there is a match in these perceptions, people like the other person in the relationship more than when the influence is symmetrical. People feel more comfortable. People are more confident that the work relationship will be a success. (Tiedens and Fragale, 2003)

The culture in Europe and North America emphasis equality between people (égality, liberté et fraternité), but in work relationships when there actually is true equality people don’t like each other as much and are not as comfortable and not as successful. In work relationships, people don’t say it but unconsciously people prefer hierarchy: asymmetric accepted influence.

But what about all those companies embracing self-management, even firing all the bosses? Is that all nonsense? No, we do need a mix of hierarchy and self-management, each for distinct purposes.

The tool of hierarchy has been overused. Hierarchy has been used to direct  information flows through a company (cascading down and up), which is old-fashioned. Information should flow freely. Hierarchy has been overused for much of decision-making, so nowadays many managers have become the bottleneck for decisions. Hierarchy has been overused for organising meetings, so a boss’s naturally limited perspective dominates what is discussed and decided.  Hierarchy has been overused for assigning roles, where team-level roles automatically get assigned to the most senior person, not the one with the right talent for it. And so on.

Hierarchy should be used, but like the judiciary system: only when things go wrong, and when after much discussion a conclusion cannot be reached, when the wheels have ground to a halt. For those situations we do need a cascade of asymmetric accepted influence.

For all the other things: communicating, sharing information, taking decisions, directing meetings, defining roles, stimulating growth – for those we do not need hierarchy, and should work to tap into the wisdom of all the voices we can hear. We are all learning how to do this adequately and in a productive way.

Filip Lowette and I are contributing to this conversation with our new book, The Fluid Organisation: an ideal mix of hierarchy and self-management. Currently in Dutch.

Tiedens, L.Z. , Unzueta, M.M., Young, M.J. 2007. An unconscious desire for hierarchy? The motivated perception of dominance complementarity in task partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, pp. 402-414.

Tiedens, L.Z., Fragale, A.R. 2003. Power moves: complementarity in dominant and submissive nonverbal behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, pp. 558-568.