Aaron Kay at Fuqua Management School of Business at Duke University, Carolina, thinks leaders should worry less about empowerment and equality.
He says “In organisations there is a move to become flat but that is not always the best thingy you want to keep employees working hard”.
“People may say that they want to work in an egalitarian workplace but sometimes they actually function better in a hierarchy” regardless of where they sit in the organisation.
It’s not just that a hierarchy offers more chance of promotion – although some staff will appreciate seeing a ladder to climb – but that hierarchies offer staff a sense of order and structure which they like.
When times are turbulent and external circumstances reduce their sense of control preference for hierarchies increases. Kay says “People seek out guidance and leaders” And a hierarchy helps them feel that they are in a safe, stable environment … where they can predict the outcome of their behaviours.
His research also suggests that a strong hierarchy helps people feel that they are being more effective in tackling long-term goals. “If you lead an organisation where you need employees to work on long-term projects, committed to long-term goals, it’s tempting to think that if you give them autonomy they will be more interested and it will drive the right behaviour”.
But as he points out long-term goals are hard to achieve and people need to forgo immediate reward to focus on something way off in the future. They have to trust the system. Having a clear structure and a hierarchy reassures employees that things won’t change before they complete the task.
Hierarchy might also be better for complex tasks where each person needs to complete their part exactly as it is specified. This doesn’t necessarily mean managers should adopt a directive or autocratic approach. Employees obviously like to know where they stand but managers shouldn’t lord it over them and be open to new ideas.
Other experts disagree. One said ‘it’s naive to think that structures always work the way they were intended“. In some organisations employees feel that although there is a structure and the rules are fair, they are not always applied fairly.
It seems to depend on whether or not you can trust the leaders and managers to be fair and whether or not the rules change as you are working.
See also my earlier post on hierarchical management.