Are Workplace Hierarchies Good or Evil?

how to make hierarchies at the workplace work

Hierarchies receive plenty of flak.

They’re blamed for slowing decisions down, stifling innovation, fostering complacency and stagnation… the derision can go on and on.

To remove such bottlenecks, businesses design flat hierarchies. This step works to an extent. But when work begins piling up, leaders add more people which invariably leads to the need for more managers.

Eventually, a hierarchy as flat as a racetrack turns into the pyramid of Giza. So we call hierarchies a necessary evil.

Only, they’re not.

Hierarchies Exist Everywhere

In nature, hierarchies hide in plain sight — in the food chain, in the organization of life, and biomass pyramids.

In man-made structures like tribes and corporations, hierarchies make sense of chaos and get work done in a predictable manner. Without them, people wouldn’t know their roles (which already is a challenge in the knowledge era).

Hierarchies enable leaders to remove themselves from daily operations and invest their time and energy in pursuing bigger goals.

But like any system, hierarchies need maintenance. When they function like well-oiled machines, they can deliver outcomes they were built for.

As a leader, here are three things you can do to keep this system in order.

1. Solve the Right Problems

In Hindu mythology, when Indra cannot solve a problem, he approaches Brahma. When Brahma cannot answer Indra’s question, He approaches Vishnu. Vishnu approaches Shiva if He cannot solve Brahma’s problem who in turn, approaches the Devi.

But the Devi doesn’t solve Indra’s problem. If She does, he will approach Her directly henceforth.

Instead, the Devi wants to know why Shiva couldn’t solve Vishnu’s problem. Shiva cares about why Vishnu couldn’t answer Brahma’s question, and so on. This ensures the hierarchy functions smoothly and order exists.

But in our lives, it’s tempting to solve the core problem in order to reach outcomes quickly. In the process, you address the wrong issue. The issue is not the problem itself, but why your people couldn’t solve it.

When you provide all the answers, people slack off and start expecting to be spoon-fed. (It’s natural since every human being wants to expend minimum energy by default.) As a result, you spend more energy dousing the same fires over and over again.

Instead of solving people’s problems, find out why they couldn’t solve them. Use open-ended questions to help them figure the answers out by themselves.

Good leaders don’t need to have the answers: they just need to identify problems and make sure they’re addressed. — Dave Bailey

In the short term, this might feel like a waste of time. Work that can get completed in fifteen minutes could take up to an hour.

But in the long term, people will become better problem solvers and more committed, and you’ll get the space you need to focus on what you should.

2. Encourage Mistakes

When people solve their own problems, they make mistakes. Plenty of them. At such times, many leaders take back the reins and things revert to how they were. This short-term thinking cripples the organization in the long-term.

Most decisions and mistakes are reversible. But when people don’t feel like that, they either sweep them under the carpet or play it safe by sticking to the same thing. This exposes the business unit or organization to the risk of facing a full-blown crisis or getting disrupted.

Mistakes are a part of the learning curve. You made plenty of them on your way too, didn’t you?

Allow people to falter without worrying about repercussions. You’re capable to handle things if they go south. Let people feel safe. The safer they feel, the harder they’ll work with you to correct things before they get out of hand.

To invent, you have to experiment. And if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. — Jeff Bezos

Mistakes that come out in the open are a source of learning for everyone. Don’t deny your people of such opportunities to learn. Because with such learning comes progress.

3. Welcome Feedback

Feedback is vital for our growth. It clarifies expectations, helps us learn from our mistakes, and builds confidence.

But its delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Indiscreet feedback leads to emotional reactions. This is why many leaders avoid giving it and avoid asking for it even more.

how to give feedback the right way

The best leaders, however, seek out feedback. It helps them improve their performance, lead more productive teams, and further their careers.

Seek out feedback not just from your seniors and colleagues, but your direct reports as well. (Let the sender’s identity remain anonymous for your people to feel comfortable.) Publicly appreciate the feedback you found useful, mention how you plan to address it, and how you would like people to hold you accountable.

This might feel frightening… like you’re relinquishing control and exposing your vulnerable side. But instead of weakening you, this vulnerability strengthens you. You become can shape yourself to become better than you were yesterday.

Leading by example will also make people emulate you. They’ll ask for and share feedback constructively. Thus, you build a culture where people trust each other, pose questions without judging or feeling judged, and respect divergent opinions.

A workplace like this is where people love to show up and give their best every day.

Summing Up

A hierarchy is not an autocracy. Applied wisely, it can empower rather than overpower people, and make them feel committed rather than controlled.

When you empower your people, they empower your organization to move forward and prepare itself to take on challenges of the future.

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