There is a growing trend among organizational consultants and gurus toward democratic workplaces. Whether they promote flat, matrixed, open or decentralized organizations the message is the same: hierarchies are out-dated and need to be scrapped. The case is compelling. The evidence, however, isn’t as strong as many assert.
In a recent study, researchers led Richard Ronay, a post-doctoral scholar at Columbia Business school, examined how teams of people with equal power perform against more traditionally hierarchical teams. To accomplish this, the researchers primed 140 people to take on various mindsets. In one group, participants were primed to think of themselves as high-ranking potential leaders by recalling a time when they thrived in that role. In another, participants were primed to consider themselves as low-ranking, recalling when they were at the mercy of someone else’s power. A third, control group was primed to think of a recent trip to the supermarket.
The researchers created teams marked by either all high-ranking, all low-ranking or a mixed group of participants. They then gave participants two tasks: one cooperative and one individual. In the collaborative task, teams wrote sentences consisting of words contributed by each team member. In the individual task, each person drafted a list of novel uses for common objects. While there were no significant differences in the individual task, the mixed-ranking teams significantly outperformed the uniform groups in the collaborative task.
One explanation for their result could be that hierarchies help collaborative tasks by creating defined roles. For tasks that demand interdependence, such defined roles make performance much easier. Through hierarchies, less time is spent figuring out how the team will operate and more time spent on actually performing. It’s important to draw a distinction between productivity-tasks, where the desired outcome is clearly known and creativity-tasks, where such outcomes are less clear and demand a mix of perspectives.
The researchers note that hierarchies often result from our natural tendency to drift into structure. “Pecking orders,” they write, “…are not just for the birds.” The research suggests that our recent feelings toward hierarchical structures may betray our natural tendencies, and perhaps the fad of flat structures won’t last. Overall, the value of hierarchies versus flat structures is not a clear distinction. There are likely tasks and industries that benefit from more or less structure. Perhaps, these results serve as a reminder not to abandon our organizational traditions too quickly.
|David Burkus is the editor of LDRLB. He writes, speaks, and serves on the faculty of management at Oral Roberts University’s College of Business.|