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What has been the outcome of our addiction to hierarchy?

Hierarchical organisations during the 20th Century were fabulously successful at delivering globally scaled “mass benefits”, from medical care to regulation. This success led to the default assumption that it is the best and only way to operate, alongside an ever-increasing acceptance (or blindness) to its problems. These problems over time have had a negative impact in the following areas:

Hierarchies and people

  • Widespread disenfranchisement and disengagement of employees
  • Fitting people into detailed job descriptions rather than building roles around people
  • The fuelling of distress and burnout at the top and bottom
  • Energy expended on stifling levels of fear and politicking
  • A disregard for personal wholeness, spirituality and wellbeing
  • The deterioration of trust not just up a hierarchy but peer-to-peer
  • Imbalance of ownership and responsibility: too much higher up, too little lower down
  • Rising inequality between well-rewarded executives and stagnated employee wages

Hierarchies and success

  • A stifling of innovation, from idea conception through to successful execution
  • Low levels of reinvestment and productivity
  • A lack of cross-discipline, cross-team thinking and diversity of worldview
  • The prioritisation of “you vs me” internal competition over partnership and relationship
  • Default to efficiency and standardisation to the detriment of adaptability and expression
  • Flawed meritocracy where the right people don’t necessarily get promoted
  • Rising bureaucratisation and the slowing down of responsiveness

Hierarchies and purpose

  • Cultures that get drawn inwards to address problems, not outwards to meet opportunities
  • A prioritisation of goals that suit higher levels of management
  • Low levels of empathy, moral courage and sense of purpose
  • The cannibalisation of intrinsic motivation, particularly through the use of incentives
  • Too much distance (and too many layers) between senior management and the front line
  • Too much time spent managing people v.s. pursuing the organisation's purpose
  • Management-by-objectives, prediction and control as opposed to purpose and principles


“Traditional pyramidal structures demand too much of too few and not enough of everyone else.”

Gary Hamel

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  1. Cassa Grant

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