Do Offices Need a Hierarchy?

Posted August 23, 2012 by Marcy Farrey in On the Ladder

Every office has a chain of command. Sometimes, it can take weeks or months to get through it, even when you need an answer right away. All employees complain about the process, especially when it is slow and dysfunctional. Some newer companies have decided to take a different route and eliminate a lot of the managerial roles. But are we too quick to judge the hierarchy? Contributor Christina DesMarais compiled some data and found that employees like hierarchies — even if they think they don’t. A study from Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Larissa Tiedens and Cornell University Assistant Professor Emily Zitek asked participants to examine organizational charts of fictitious companies and memorize the connections. The participants then offered feedback on how well they thought those companies functioned. Some of the companies had no hierarchy, while others had a more traditional structure. Participants who studied a hierarchical company found the structure easier to understand, and hence gave a more favorable review of that company:

It turns out, people like hierarchies because of the clarity they provide: They’re easier to memorize and more predictable. The charts that reflected more egalitarian structures confused the participants . . . In a hierarchy, it quickly becomes apparent who gets access to whom, which positions are coveted because they come with better pay and status, and so forth. Take away all the levels, and things get more interesting, albeit more confusing.”

As much as we don’t like the chain of command, we at least know what to expect. As employees, we like that sense of organization, even if we don’t like how long it takes to get through it.

This doesn’t mean that the egalitarian model is bad or doesn’t work. DesMarais brought up a good example of an egalitarian company that does quite well. Valve Software, which created a number of blockbuster video games, has no organizational structure. The company does not have mangers or bosses — and based on the success of their products, the structure works.

So what really is the best way for companies to organize their staff? DesMarais says the companies with the best structures are clear on their intentions. Companies can have a non-hierarchical structure, but it should still be organized. DesMarais offers a quote from Stanford professor Larissa Tiedens:

‘People often think equality is a natural state that doesn’t have to be managed, but it does,’ Tiedens says. ‘It’s harder for people to understand and learn an egalitarian structure. So you need more clarity in other structural variables, like really clear job titles, for instance.’”

If you’re an entrepreneur figuring out how to organize your company, Tiedens remarks are ones to keep in mind. Employees need to understand how the structure works, and how they should function in relation to the people around them. As long as that is clear, the type of structure shouldn’t matter.

As an employee, you have to figure out what kind of structure works best for you, then keep it in mind when you start interviewing. If you find that an egalitarian structure would suit you, make sure that structure is clearly defined by the company. If you’re someone who likes to have a familiar pecking order, and thrives within a clear set of rules, then stick with a more traditional structure. What is most important is that you work for a company that helps you work better, and for whom you can do your best work.

Read more about company structures in DesMarais’ article.

About the Author

Marcy Farrey

Marcy Farrey is a videographer, writer, and editor. In her previous life, she worked as a broadcast news reporter and producer in Lincoln, Nebraska and as a writer and producer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University. Learn more about Marcy on her website


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