The True Meaning of Hierarchy

The true meaning The true meaning of Hierarchyof Hierarchy

Hierarchy seems to be the dominant form of human organisations. From the Catholic Church to States, from the Military to most private organisations, we see these pyramid-like organisations everywhere, up to the point that many assume that Hierarchy is a “Natural Order”. Yet the word hierarchy has acquired an almost negative connotation today. Many attacks come to organisational models that are based on Hierarchy, and different options are being put forward. However, when facing the concept itself, it is difficult to simply state that “hierarchy is evil”, and hop on an entirely different system… because, to date, I argue that there is no scalable system that is complete without hierarchical principles.

Through this article, I would try to answer a couple of critical questions:

  1. What is the origin of the word Hierarchy?
  2. Is Homo Sapiens a hierarchical being?
  3. What forms can Hierarchy take within an organisation context?
  4. What are the

Origins of the Word and meaning across History.

The word Hierarchy dates back to ancient Greece. It seems to have been coined by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 6th Century AD. It is made up of ἱερός (hierós, “holy”) + ἄρχω (árkhō, “I rule”). The first clear meaning, linked to its etymology, comes as “the governance of things sacred” (Verdier, 2006). In Theology the word was initially used to refer to the subordination that exists between different levels of Angels. The concept than migrates and is extended to the description of Clergy.

Fig.1: Nine Orders of Angels. Unknown Serbian Painter, ca. 1700. Source: Wikimedia.
Fig.1: Nine Orders of Angels. Unknown Serbian Painter, ca. 1700. Source: Wikimedia.

The concept of Hierarchy in the Catholic Church, as a principle derived from God, was at the centre of the dispute between Martin Luther and the Church. It is at the time of the Council of Trento that the word hierarchy was officially adopted to describe the different degrees of the ecclesiastical state. At the same time, it was mandating that opposition to this concept would have been a reason for heresy.

With the French Illuminism and the Encyclopedie, we see for the first time the usage of the word outside a religious context. Hierarchy becomes a “Human Construct” that also applies to society. Several philosophers have been reasoning on the concept of Hierarchy in different domains, especially as a tool for classification and taxonomies. Primarily, any ordered system that entails a subordinate relationship can today be described as a Hierarchy.

When applied to Human Systems, there is a tendency from many authors to consider Hierarchy as a dominant or natural way of arrangement. Almost every system of organisation applied to the world is arranged hierarchically (Kulish, 2002).

When we speak about Human Organisations, we talk about Hierarchical Structure to show the typical pyramid organisational model, where a manager coordinates the work of several subordinates. By many, it is assumed that there is not an alternative to this model, which at most can be mitigated in its shortcomings. Almost as if that initial connection with gods, was never really removed.

On top of this, there is a tendency to identify Hierarchy also as an “innate behaviour” for animals and the Human Species. But is it really like that?

Homo Sapiens and the desire to command.

Biologists and zoologists have been observing Hierarchical Behaviors among most species on Earth. From Ants to Bonobos, there is a tendency to assume that many species tend to form hierarchies in Nature. We all have clear through the documentaries we have seen, the concept of the “Alpha Male”, particularly relevant among predators (Boehm, 2001). So, is this attitude innate also in Human Beings?

The answer that researcher give in this context is not linear. The reason is that many define Human Beings as having, in reality, egalitarian behaviours. Other primates have tended to express simple hierarchical structures. However, there are among some of the giant apes, practices of collaboration among members forming coalitions to overthrow the dominant male. Resentment of Dominance is apparently also connatural to many hierarchical animals, but only ion few cases there is cooperation among some members.

As the homo sapiens evolved, apparently this collaboration trait became more “useful” also from an evolutionary perspective: this especially when the first communities of gatherers formed, with male hunters often serving as the collective alpha (Calmettes and Weiss, 2017). The theory for many is that a dominance hierarchy of individuals with exclusively self-centred characteristics (the wish to dominate, resentment at being dominated) transitions spontaneously to egalitarianism as their capacity for language develops. Language allows resentment against being dominated to promote the formation of mutually beneficial coalitions which destabilise the alpha position for individuals, leading to a phase transition in which a coalition of the full or part of the population suddenly becomes dominant.

With historical progression, communities of gatherers evolved into larger residential communities. It’s here that new governance systems were created, and where the first hierarchies started to appear. When human societies began to grow, and roles began to specialise, a tipping point happened which pushed for the birth of government systems where a “chief” would dominate, together with a hierarchy of dignitaries (Peterson and Somit, 1997). The fact that in most of these institutions there has been a moment in which the power principle has been linked to some kind of supernatural power, is further testimony to the fact that probably, the human being is not made to live in hierarchies naturally.

Fig.2: The Standard of Ur. ca. 2600 b.C. Source: Wikimedia
Fig.2: The Standard of Ur. ca. 2600 b.C. Source: Wikimedia

Whenever a team of children is put together to solve a problem, we can often observe the primacy of an individual and the formation of a sort of Hierarchy. But this usually is instrumental in reaching the goal, not a prerequisite for action (Fein, 2012). So, why has the hierarchical model had so much success in Human History?

The analysis of Harari in his book Homo Deus comes to help. As he examines what has been the real evolutionary advantage of the Homo Sapiens vs other animals, he mentions the fact that Humans can establish much more extensive networks of collaboration (Harari, 2018). For doing so, Humans have developed complex forms of communication. But, there are limits on which individual relationship are sufficient. Several researchers have set this limit to about 150 people: this is the maximum size by which we can hold a community together without an organisation structure. As smaller communities started to collaborate, there was the necessity to build a way to coordinate these more extensive networks. According to Hariri, this came in the form of a shared narrative, and the development of writing gave the tool required to expand this narrative over time. The development of a hierarchical structure (with bureaucrats, armies and a formal religion) helped then extend each of the narratives also in size (geographically), giving birth to the first empires. And to date, the most enduring forms of human societies (more extensive than a village), have all endured because of a shared narrative. And a Hierarchy is a perfect way to enable and maintain this, accompanying its evolution over time.

So is the Human Being inherently hierarchical? The best answer is that, probably, our Nature is mixed. We are instinctively tuned to Hierarchy, but we have developed an ambition for egalitarianism. The point is that it takes intentional action to be egalitarian, something we might miss in situations of danger or high stress. There is also another essential element to consider: the evolution of our society has created a complex set of multiple hierarchies. Thus each of us belongs to numerous hierarchies at the same time. In our daily life, therefore, we might very well be able to express our competitive spirit in some domains and be egalitarian in others.

Hierarchy and Organisation

As we have seen in the paragraph on History, the word Hierarchy has been used primarily to indicate a way to classify and organise information. Angels were the very first ones, but most taxonomies (if not all of them) today are based on a hierarchical principle, which is why Hierarchy can fundamentally be viewed as a thought tool or a cognitive skill, which enables humans to group things, ideas and concepts into categories (Knuchel, 2018).

Seen this way, the concept of Hierarchy changes altogether. Most models that we use to map knowledge, know-how, competencies, skills, are all hierarchical. The principle itself of the Functional organisation is based not on a hierarchy of power, but rather on a classification of activities. The principle itself of the division of labour (Durkheim, 1984) is nothing but a hierarchical taxonomy applied to the tasks and activities of work.

Fig.3: The First Modern Organisation Chart. Fancy, uh? Source: McKinsey.
Fig.3: The First Modern Organisation Chart. Fancy, uh? Source: McKinsey.

But how do hierarchies get formed in an organisation? According to the milestone article by Ronald Coase The Nature of the Firm, people begin to organise in firms when an entrepreneur starts hiring people. According to classical economic theory, in the presence of perfect markets, there should not be the need for such an organisation. But Coase saw that the birth of a firm was explicitly linked to the imperfect market and the fact that internal transaction costs within an organisation would be lower than transaction costs within the market. These lower transaction costs are mostly achieved precisely because of the application of a hierarchical principle within the firm: the entrepreneur can govern and organise the work of its employees, who execute directives.

The so-called Theory of the Firm has evolved from the initial transactional cost focus of Coase. However, also other approaches, such as that of William Baumol and Oliver E. Williamson (so-called Managerial Theory) have ended up underlying the inherent existence of a Hierarchical principle in the reality itself of the organisation. Moving the focus from the entrepreneur to the manager, would not change the basic idea: which is that Hierarchy is indisputably part of any organisation.

According to Gerard Fairtlough, however, this is a misconception, as we tend to mix up two critical concepts, both using the word “Organisation”. An organisation is an entity, is a group of people working together for some purpose. Organisation is also an activity, and here the meaning relates to the creation of discipline and order (Fairtlough, 2007).

In his view, there are, in reality, three ways of getting things done in an organisation. He named this triarchy, and here is a quick description of the elements.

  • Hierarchy (we know this).
  • Heterarchy is the form of structure commonly found in professional-service firms, the partnerships of accountants or lawyers in which key decisions are taken by all the partners jointly.
  • Responsible autonomy: here, an individual or a group has the autonomy to decide what to do but is accountable for the outcome of the decision. It is this accountability principle that makes responsible autonomy a valid alternative, very different from anarchy (Fairtlough, 2007). An area where this model works well is scientific research, where individuals or teams work independently, and peer review ensure the respect of scientific principles (Wikipedia Contributors, 2019).

In the view of Fairtlough, the biggest problem is not that we are hardwired to work in a hierarchy, but that we assume Hierarchy is the only way of getting things done.

The hegemony of hierarchy makes us think the only alternative is disorganisation…we only compare hierarchy with anarchy or chaos.

Gerard Fairtlough, The Three Ways of Getting things Done (2007)

Any form of human organisation ends up being based on a division of tasks or knowledge. It’s almost as if every person would be part of an algorithm, and it is the algorithm in itself that takes decisions, acts, executes. This is the essence of bureaucracy (Harari, 2018), genuinely intended in the sense that Max Weber gave, without the negative connotation we often carry. Now, an algorithm is an essential mathematical process, and mathematics is inherently hierarchical.

This creates the shortcut of our view of the world: we tend to assume that any organisation needs to be hierarchical. But we are mixing up several distinct elements, that I will now address separately:

  • Hierarchy as a form of organising information.
  • Hierarchy as a form of power.
  • Hierarchy as a communication flow.
  • Hierarchy as a Shared Narrative.

Hierarchy as a way of organising information

We have already mentioned the view of “hierarchy” as a way to classify information and create taxonomies. And we said that important sciences like Mathematics are inherently hierarchical. Let’s see a shortlist of items that are used every day to organise information, and that is based on a hierarchical principle:

  • Project Plans and GANTT charts
  • Budgets
  • Process Flows
  • Triage mechanisms and Crisis Planning
  • Prioritisation Matrixes
  • Benchmarking
  • Any of the Business Models Tools we have seen, by excluding parts and helping to focus on others, create a hierarchy.
  • Any of the Strategy Frameworks we have seen, look at identifying what is more important and what is less.
  • Any of the Operating Model Tools we have seen look at establishing priorities in the way to execute.
  • Any of the Change Management methods we have examined establishes a priority of action.

Essentially whenever we have to establish that one thing is more important than another, we are creating a hierarchy. Where things have gone pear-shaped, however, is where Hierarchy has been hijacked by bullies seeking power (Knuchel, 2018).

Hierarchy and Power

The problem with Hierarchy is when this is associated with power and is used as a way to preserve energy. This is where the confusion, mentioned by Fairtlough, becomes dangerous: when we confuse Hierarchy as the sole way to direct an organisation, by applying command and control principles.

How is this achieved? Usually, by segmenting information and avoiding transparency. When few people at the top can really hold on to the bulk of information, and only segment chunks of these of the rest of the organisation is when the pernicious effects of Hierarchy appear. The most visible impact happens when the organisation structure also becomes a channel of communication.

Hierarchy and Communication Flows

I recently reviewed a non-management book: Midnight in Chernobyl. One of the reasons for that review, as mentioned, is that it perfectly illustrates how an organisation can almost implode and destroy itself by blindly following a hierarchical principle, by which each piece of information needs to be routed through the command chain. A realisation that true leaders need make early as they face situations of uncertainty: Ed Catmull mention in his book that one of his earliest discovery of problems at Pixar was when he understood that communication was being held hostage by the organisational structure.

Hierarchy Structures are an effective means of top-down communication. Centuries of combat have shown that armies can be very useful in using this form of organisation. The problem is when feedback loops need to be created to get communication upward. When the bureaucrats at each level want to preserve part of the information power, then everything can slow down and get stuck.

It is this flow of communication aspect, the non-transparency and the power focus that have led to creating a strong sentiment anti-hierarchy, that is more and more diffused around the world. when blindly rejecting Hierarchy indiscriminately on that basis, there is a danger that we do throw the human baby and our core ability to think & prioritise out with the water at the same time. (Knuchel, 2018).

Hierarchology and the Peter’s Principle

We have recently seen through the review of The Peter Principle, some of the other deviations that Hierarchy creates, up to the point that he created a discipline called hierarchology. Besides the ironic tone of most of the book, there are some genuinely valid principles there, including the Peter Principle itself. In a Hierarchy, Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence. This paradox is probably one of the main reasons why there is a growing sense of resentment towards hierarchies.

Hierarchy and Shared Narrative

What hierarchies have been good at is creating and preserving a Shared Narrative, which is one of the main components in establishing a sense of belonging? Think about the Catholic Church (but also all other significant religions in the world). They all have been portraying hierarchical models, and they all have endured over time. Nation/States are another example of lasting narratives based on hierarchical models.

What’s interesting is that in today’s discussion about the human-centred, network-based organisation, we fail to recognise that we still assume also in the flattest organisation, a hierarchical principle: Purpose.

What’s wrong with Hierarchies?

There is nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies; we have seen this. The fact is that Nature’s default way of working is not Hierarchy, but rather what has been defined as Complex Adaptive Systems. This can be translated “as a system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behaviour, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution.” (Mitchell, 2011). What is most distinctive about complex adaptive systems is that, while they do produce hierarchies as byproducts, the archetype for their fundamental structures is the network (Collins, 2016).

Fig.4: Hierarchies Everywhere: Maslow's Pyramid of Needs. Source: Wikimedia
Fig.4: Hierarchies Everywhere: Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. Source: Wikimedia

Hierarchies work well in the context of a mechanical system designed to leverage control and maintain equilibrium. But the moment we introduce changing circumstances, the advantage of complex adaptive systems are evident: they are great at leveraging collective learning to adapt to changing conditions.

Here we come to the heart of the organisational design issue. If the primary focus of the organisation is about maintaining control and balance in an ordered world, then Hierarchy is a perfect tool to work with. If instead, the focus is to build an organisation that can adapt to a rapidly changing environment, then we need to seek alternatives forms of organisation. And this should be some form of networks.

A perfect example of a human organisation that is based on some Network principles is our democratic state. Power is not concentrated in a unique source; it is instead distributed across several entities. And democracies foster the development of new forms of collaboration and a new relationship. Thus new nodes are formed (and destroyed) regularly. Is Democracy a perfect system? Probably not. But so far it has demonstrated to be a very resilient one.

Yet somebody would observe that also in a democracy several forms of Hierarchy are present. And this is a correct observation.

Regardless of which orientation is chosen, from a practical perspective, any organisation will contain both hierarchies and networks. That’s because in every Hierarchy, there are networks and, in every network, there are hierarchies.

François Knuchel, Is hierarchy Toxic?

Let’s look at some of the leading examples of networks. One example is Wikipedia. A perfect example of an actual network. Yet, also within Wikipedia, there are some forms of hierarchies. There are System Administrator and Bureaucrats, and there are Stewards. The goal of these roles, however, is not to organise the effort of a large number of people. Instead, they are there to solve exceptions (for example when there is a discussion on a particular topic and consensus among the authors is not reached), ensure that malicious content is kept afar, and working on the oversight of the quality of the tool.

I don’t want to list again the many different forms of organisation that have been presented as alternatives to the traditional Hierarchy, as I have already discussed these in detail in another article. They all try to advocate better options to react to continuous change.

There is, for sure, merit in trying to diminish the levels of middle management in most organisation and to flatten the structure (Minnaar, 2019). But be careful, as long as we keep using words like empowerment, delegation accountability, participation, and so on, we are implicitly recognising the existence of some forms of Hierarchy. People are empowered because somebody is giving permission, delegation implies the possibility to hand part of the responsibility (but also taking it back). Accountability means being held responsible for something… Participation means being part of a decision, but not necessarily making it.

Another word that holds the seeds of Hierarchy is Leadership as it implicitly recognises at least a grading of competence between great leadership and low leadership, if not a distinction between leaders and followers.

The Quest for Self-Management

We can’t and should not get rid of hierarchies fully (Pick, 2018), we instead need to understand in which areas of an organisation they make sense and avoid assuming that the principle applies everywhere. Same way, if we agree on self-management principles to be involved, we need to ensure we think from the very beginning about how to manage exceptions and all those cases where consensus is not reached. An interesting example is the experience of Ricardo Semler with Democracy. Reading the book, it is evident that the experiment of applying democratic principles has been able to mitigate a lot of the issues that traditional organisation structures have. But Semler has been able to hold some form of ultimate power across the entire history of that organisation. And in the end, he decides to sell Semco.

I think that in the quest to establish a real alternative to the traditional Hierarchy, we need to deeper analyse all the components of an organisation design, trying to understand what can be applier where. Self-Management, for example, seems instinctively the best candidate to become the alternative source of focus for many organisations. But what do we do when things don’t work? The advantage of Hierarchy vs other systems is that it gave an intrinsic solution also for all exceptions as well as the possibility to form coalitions that could change the power structure of the organisation (think about all the cases of a management buy-out or M&A). Alternative models yet have to deliver a holistic answer to all these questions. At the same time, we should not consider the argument that we have to wait for the perfect system to appear to start innovating.

In the end, the ideal solution is probably a situational hierarchy where each organisation moves on a slider between full self-management and full top-down Hierarchy and adapts this depending on the environmental situation.

Conclusion

In this lengthy article, I tried to demonstrate a few facts that are important to understand the concept of Hierarchies.

  1. The word hierarchy is linked initially to religious contexts, a fact that is helpful to understand why we often attribute to a Hierarchy a “supernatural” meaning.
  2. Homo Sapiens is a species that tends to be equalitarian, rather than hierarchical. However, with the establishment of modern societies that exceeded, in size, that of a small village, some principles of controls pushed humanity to choose hierarchical forms of organisation. In most cases, these have been linked to some kind of spiritual power.
  3. Hierarchy is a powerful tool to create and maintain a social narrative.
  4. Hierarchy is a way to organise information. When applied to an organisation we tend to mix the Power aspect with the human necessity of giving a sense to information, using taxonomies and hierarchies. When power is used to subject the information flows, avoiding transparency, we have negative impacts on Hierarchy.
  5. Alternative models suggested to Hierarchy can be grouped into clusters of Heterarchy or Responsible Autonomy. Yet the question is how to scale organisation that use these principles.
  6. Traditional Top-Down hierarchies are not “fit for purpose” in VUCA contexts, where constant adaptation and change might be required. But the reality is that we cannot abandon altogether the hierarchical principle in an organisation that we want to scale. There are moments where these will, in any case, be necessary.
  7. There is not yet an alternative to Hierarchy that is fully versatile and can manage all exceptions. However, this should not push to avoid seeking for alternatives forms. In the end, every organisation will resort to hybrid models, ranging in a spectrum between self-management and Hierarchy.

I’m sure that probably this article raises more questions, rather than giving answers. I wanted to frame the issue with so many of the different points of views that are necessary to grasp it holistically, as it is to easy to shrug off Hierarchy as we don’t need it anymore, without having a clear perception of the alternative.

What do you think about this article? Use the comment form below.

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Reference list

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Boehm, C. (2001). Hierarchy in the forest : the evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Calmettes, G. and Weiss, J.N. (2017). The emergence of egalitarianism in a model of early human societies. Heliyon, 3(11), p.e00451.

Collins, R. (2016). Is Hierarchy Really Necessary? [online] HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/is-hierarchy-really-neces_b_9850168 [Accessed 17 May 2020].

Durkheim, É. (1984). The division of labour in society. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Fairtlough, G. (2007). The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy in Organization. Triarchy Press.

Fein, M.L. (2012). Human Hierarchies: A General Theory. 1st Edition ed. Transaction Publishers.

Harari, Y.N. (2018). Homo deus : a brief history of tomorrow. New York, Ny: Harper Perennial.

Knuchel, F. (2018). Is Hierarchy Toxic? [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/humanorganisingco/the-issue-with-hierarchy-a986f62963a5 [Accessed 12 May 2020].

Kulish, V.V. (2002). Hierarchical Methods. 1st Edition ed. Amsterdam: Springer.

Lane, D. (2006). Hierarchy, Complexity, Society. In: D. Pumain, ed., Hierarchy in Natural and Social Sciences. Amsterdam: Springer, pp.81–119.

Minnaar, J. (2019). 4 Future-Proof Organizational Models Beyond Hierarchy And Bureaucracy. [online] Corporate Rebels. Available at: https://corporate-rebels.com/4-future-proof-organizational-models-beyond-hierarchy-and-bureaucracy/ [Accessed 18 May 2020].

Mitchell, M. (2011). Complexity : a guided tour. New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nilaya, J. (2015). Understanding Hierarchies in Nature and Society. [online] http://www.wnpr.org. Available at: https://www.wnpr.org/post/understanding-hierarchies-nature-and-society [Accessed 12 May 2020].

Peterson, S. and Somit, A. (1997). Darwinism, Dominance, and Democracy: The Biological Bases of Authoritarianism. Praeger.

Pick, F. (2018). Busting The Myth: Organizations With No Hierarchy Don’t Exist. [online] Corporate Rebels. Available at: https://corporate-rebels.com/busting-the-myth/ [Accessed 20 Nov. 2019].

Verdier, N. (2006). Hierarchy: A Short History of a Word in Western Thought. In: D. Pumain, ed., Hierarchy in Natural and Social Sciences. Amsterdam: Springer, pp.13–37.

Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Responsible autonomy. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Responsible_autonomy [Accessed 15 May 2020].

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Cover Photo by Edvard Alexander Rølvaag on Unsplash

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