Perils of Hierarchy

One of the downsides of traveling across the developing world routinely is an overexposure to hierarchy. At its most obvious, this is manifest in most accomplished individuals being accompanied by an entourage of overly fawning folks. Ostensibly they are there to help get things done, so that the eminent person does not waste time on frivolous matters, and he or she can attend to more weighty things. Indeed, while it may not be politically correct to say so, I think there’s some role for this.

But for the most part, it’s overdone. The protective cabal around the eminent person unfortunately ends up doing as much harm as good. Most importantly, they prevent well-meaning people from speaking truth to power. They form a cocoon that protects the eminence not just from inefficient engagement in frivolous things, but also ‘protects’ them from ideas, and this is the kiss of death.

At a student led conference run at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School a couple of weeks ago, a student asked a visiting dignitary from India about hierarchy in his organization. The dignitary assured her that hierarchy was much less in evidence now than it had been in the past. Yet he was accompanied by the same entourage (though admittedly smaller than in the past, I agree!). The student was clearly unconvinced, and the buzz in the hall was that it was hard to see Harvard students agreeing to work in the sort of organizations that are anchored on some anachronistic notion of merit, most often related to family membership. Last time I checked, being part of a family did not guarantee managerial competence.

Of course, hierarchy is an age-old response to economize on management time. It is not intrinsically bad. So there are two things I watch for to guard against the downsides.

The first thing is the so-called selection mechanism, ask how one gets to one’s position in the hierarchy. If one is promoted to a position based on some merit, then it’s fine. Presumably more competent people rise to higher levels in the hierarchy. There’s a presumption that the factor that allows them to rise up the hierarchy is going to help them manage folks lower down the hierarchy. (This is not always the case. In academia for example, one rises up the hierarchy based on quality of individual ideas and publications, but managing younger folks and administering think tanks and universities is a completely different task than writing great papers.)

Second, can the hierarchy be shaken up? If it’s hard to occasionally question the hierarchy, perhaps even demote people to other positions, it raises the odds that there will be stasis and ossification. Sadly, it’s very hard to shake up hierarchies, except perhaps in times of crises when there is no other option.

In our so-called “knowledge based” society, the perils of hierarchy, when one needs to not be insulated from free-flowing ideas more than ever, are getting ever more extreme. Beware.


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