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What is the negative impact of hierarchy on success?

Hierarchies are not intrinsically bad. Hierarchies were enormously successful during the 20th Century when we needed to organise mass human effort and their negative characteristics weren't able to inflict much damage - because the economy was slow moving, primarily production based and stakeholder expectations were very narrow.  Today, however, the marketplace is fast moving, service-based and stakeholder expectations have proliferated. As such, the negative tendencies of a hierarchy are far more exacerbated and damaging, because hierarchy can:

  • Encourage a domineering mindset culture that fails to make room for employees to fulfil their full potential.
  • Create too much physical and emotional space between senior employees, front-line employees and customers.  
  • Slow innovation by making processes from idea inception to completion and launch cumbersome and non-intuitive.
  • Stifle adaptability by encouraging the prioritisation of efficiency.
  • Replace the relationship with a preference for control and discipline.
  • Promote the use of rigid, inflexible objectives and the top-down imposition of targets.
  • Feed bureaucracy and an ever-increasing administrative burden.

It would be a significant oversimplification to blame hierarchy alone for why the status quo organisation is no longer fit for purpose. But it is a contributing factor, particularly given we so readily adopt it. And whilst the removal of hierarchy doesn't solve the issue - (you can just as easily have negative cultures in flat structures), the minimisation of excess hierarchy - and the bureaucracy it breeds - is certainly an area to examine.

“In a high-control environment, what is personal and sacred to us is denied. Autocratic governance withers the spirit.”

Peter Block, Stewardship

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  1. John Featherby

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