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The Case for Hierarchy

As Stanford GSB professor Bob Sutton explains in a recent essay, there are plenty of positives to be found in traditional organizational structures.

There's a reason every politican claims to be an enemy of bureaucracy and red tape. 

They frustrate everyone, whether you lead or follow, or whether you encounter them at the airport or in the office. Conventional wisdom says that hierarchies strain creativity and inhibit decision-making

How refreshing, then, to find a proper argument that hierarchies are actually "good and necessary."

Moreover, the author of this seemingly contrarian take is neither a rebel nor an anarchist. He is none other than Bob Sutton, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

Why Hierarchy Is (Often) Good and Necessary

In defense of hierarchy, Sutton gives two reasons:

1. Hierarchy is inevitable. Citing the research of his Stanford colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens, Sutton states that it's simply impossible "to find groups or organizations where all members have roughly equal status and power." Even organizations claiming to be flat have power structures. Take Zappos' push toward a so-called 'holacracy.' "While more power is being pushed down the hierarchy, it persists under the new structure," writes Sutton. "This kind of claim that an organization is non-hierarchical because the top dog wields his or her power to push greater responsibility and accountability down to lower levels is also seen in hype about other companies including IDEO and W.L. Gore."

2. Organizations and people need hierarchy. Even if hierarchies are inevitable, does that mean they're good? Generally, yes, argues Sutton. A compelling example, chronicled in Sutton's forthcoming book, comes from Google founder Larry Page, who decided to get rid of middle managers once Google grew to 400 employees. The result? "More than 100 engineers reported to a single overwhelmed executive," he writes. Minus the middle managers, it was harder for executives to learn what was going on in the organization. "The upshot is that, as you scale an organization, getting rid of the hierarchy--or even assuming that a flatter one is better--is the wrong goal," writes Sutton. "Your job is to build the best hierarchy you can." 

Sutton's article on LinkedIn goes into further detail.

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