Hierarchy is usually managed terribly. Can we fix it?

If you’ve ever worked in any type of company hierarchy, you probably inherently understand some of the issues. There are dozens. Some of the classic examples of “company hierarchy sucks” would include “New ideas are instantly swatted down under the guise of someone else knowing best” and/or “Because I make more money than you, I can tell you that your look isn’t professional enough.” 

In reality, most of this stuff is complete garbage.  It’s essentially designed to keep people in specific boxes and reward like-minded individuals with increasing perks.  That is how most “enterprise” level companies work, and company hierarchy is really just in place to make sure that’s constantly being underscored.

However, there are two important things to remember here.

The first is that company hierarchy isn’t going anywhere.  We think it might because of the rise of the millennials, but that’s not true. There are dozens of reasons why this is a flawed assumption, but let me give you a couple here:

The second is that company hierarchy is a necessity. It allows us to easily process work contexts in our feeble brains. “This guy is my boss, so I am beholden to him,” your brain intones back to you. However, this is also getting more complex — what about when you have two or more bosses on a given project? It often becomes a cluster-mess. But that’s not the topic here.

So we know that company hierarchy —

  • … sucks
  • … isn’t going anywhere
  • … is used to justify what those already with power want justified

OK, so this is depressing. What can we do?

Company hierarchy: The three main problems

Let’s instead turn to some research from Stanford on company hierarchy. They come up with three main problems. Notably:

  • Not enough participation
  • Influence from the wrong players
  • Not enough conflict

All are fairly logical, and I’m sure you’ve seen them in your work here and there (or all the time). Let’s go one-by-one.

Company hierarchy: Not enough participation

Sad stat: in a group setting, decision-makers do 80% of the talking in places with a standard company hierarchy. That means 4 in every 5 statements are coming from the top dogs, who probably don’t even full context on what they’re discussing. This is a legitimate problem.

When your company hierarchy is the justification for everything else, that sucks. 

First off, “group setting” here means meeting or conference call in the most basic sense. Ever been to a meeting? It’s a complex dance of misguided emotions. Basically a bunch of people fart around, make small talk, and then repeat what the last person said with one sentence slightly different. At the end, no action items appear. But before that complete lack of context turd at the conclusion, we all sit and nervously stare from person to person as we wait for someone with real authority to say something of substance.

Sadly, this almost never happens. There’s a better chance this “true decision-maker” is checking his mobile email under a desk. (This points to another problem with company hierarchy: top dogs always love to remind you that the work you’re doing for them isn’t nearly as important as some other thing they could be working on.)

Stanford says the solution to this problem is “foster a different environment.” Their idea around that is to release more data/intel before the meeting, which presupposes that anyone prepares for a meeting. People do not prepare for meetings. It’s one of the biggest time-wasters at any office as a result. So, I’m not sold on that solution. We’ll get to my solutions at the end of this post.

Company hierarchy: Influence from the wrong players

Most company hierarchy set-ups are flawed. The people with the most money and perks — the top dogs, the brass, the key stakeholders — are usually furthest from the end customer of the product/service that allowed for those perks, bonuses, and salaries. As a result, oftentimes the people with most authority in meetings, well, have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

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We’ve all sat in deals like this. We’ve all cursed company hierarchy as a result. “All they do is sit in meetings and glad-hand,” you grouse. Guess what, though? That’s all any of us really do.

This is where you get “influence from the wrong players.” Stanford’s solution is “determine who deserves influence.” Here’s some amazing irony, though. Check out this pull quote from the research:

Greer described meeting a CEO who subscribed to something he called the “hippo style” of management. In meetings, he found dominating the discussion and talking about his own ideas caused his team to stay quiet and not challenge the status quo. To fix that dynamic, he started opening up the discussion more in meetings, allowing himself to “sink below the water” like a hippo, watching and listening rather than constantly talking, Greer says. 

Why is this ironic, per se? Well, in most companies, “HIPPO” means something entirely different — that being highest-paid person’s opinion. As many of us have experienced, that’s what company hierarchy is usually designed around. The decisions get made based on what the highest-paid person wants, which may have absolutely nothing to do with what’s best for the brand. A problem.

Company hierarchy: Not enough conflict

I’ll keep this section fairly short, because I agree with it wholeheartedly. You need conflict to drive anything forward. But because of company hierarchy, conflict is pretty rare in a lot of places. (Also, usually people in companies don’t like to discuss failure.) Conflict is rare because at some point, everyone just rolls over for the company hierarchy. They want to keep their jobs and have a chance to advance, you know?

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

Stanford’s solution is “understand another point of view,” which of course is critical. Do managers actively do this? Of course not.

So what’s the solution to company hierarchy?

Short answer: there is no solution. If you want to work for an enterprise company, chances are you’ll need to learn how to deal with hierarchy. It’s really that simple.

There are a few things beginning to shift, though. Disruption is real and scares existing executives. That might lead to some new approaches to change management. These approaches will retain company hierarchy — again, ain’t going nowhere — but maybe focus on better, faster, more priority-aligned decision-making models. This will eliminate some of the massive groan moments of dealing with standard company hierarchy. (You’d hope.)

At the individual level, here are your best bets:

Used this stat many a time, but here goes again: 82 percent of managers end up being bad at their jobs. That’s a failure rate of over 8 in 10.  If you hit on 10 girls and 8 throw a drink in your face, let me be clear about something: you are not good at hitting on girls.  Most managers are, thus, not good. But company hierarchy often forces us to respect these people with no contextual background aside from “Well, that’s how things are done!”

Then look at 13% global employee engagement stats. Look at the rise of The Gig Economy. The idea that standard company hierarchy work ain’t doing it for people anymore is all over the place. So eventually, if you can’t deal, you gotta get out. It’s that basic.

What else you got on company hierarchy?


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