There was a time when the ignorant majority made up the masses and workplaces were run through fear and dominance. Those in power had it and knew how to keep it. They had the voice, the people power and a backwards autonomy so large, communities stuck to the rules or faced punishment.
Spanning back thousands of years, hierarchy culture is perceived as the oldest and most controversial system for people management. To give it its due, hierarchical systems have achieved impressive status in terms of staying power and are still used in 21st century workplaces.
So, let's travel back in time and examine the pros and cons.
What is hierarchy culture?
Evolving from Ancient Egypt, in a time where pharaohs and pyramids stood tall and proud, hierarchy was the cloaked patriarch of society. Skip to the middle ages and we see a similar veiled protagonist – this time adorning the title of the feudal system. Land and power were governed first by kings, then bishops, then barons and nobles. The lords and knights held the fort and peasants (who were well in the majority at 90% of the population) were left to manually work the fields.
Let’s fast-forward to the time of now. Economy, communities and hubs are divided yet juxtaposed by multi-cultural societies linked by an invisible web that spans worldwide. Computers, the internet and technology – which are made up of complicated algorithms and development codes - hold huge channels for knowledge, communication and business.
Handing the megaphone over to the once-mute peasant, our corporate eco-systems give rise to public shaming and pulls us onto a new quest for emotional intelligence. Compassion, empathy and understanding the needs of your employees threaten to overhaul the dominant traditional hierarchy of office culture as we once knew it.
But are all hierarchical workplaces bad for business?
Apparently not. Here are the pros.
Advantages and purpose of an hierarchical structure
- Structure: Authority and levels of responsibility are obvious.
- Security: Research shows that employees who work for hierarchical companies feel more secure; get paid on time; and are safe to stay in their role for the long run. As Maslow's model of hierarchy suggests, if physiological factors are well managed, employees focus better on the task at hand.
- Benefits of promotion lead to exclusive advanced status and reward. This can prove a great motivator for employees.
- Specialists in their field. Employees gain status through consistent hard work and effort within a set role. By focusing on their work alone, they are more likely to achieve expert status in that one field.
- Departmental loyalty can conversely promote a tribe-like loyalty. This means that within each team, strong bonds can form.
Is it appropriate for organising?
Hierarchical companies organise their departments with military precision. Employees and employers know their space within the office and they are expected to keep to it. We first saw this organisational prowess post WWII, when office design and communal areas were used as another method of asserting authority:
"When employees moved up the career ladder, they expected the size and quality of their working space to similarly improve. The interior of an office in the 1940s served as a metaphor for order, control and surveillance. It became a manifestation of organisational culture and hierarchy." - Workplaceinsight.com
For the big bosses that usually means a snazzy corner office, which is roughly the size of 5 desks and filled with natural light. The main desk, which sits opposite a hugely dominant chair is adorned with office plants, trophies and pictures of family they don't get chance to see.
For the employees, they are typically set into cubicle desks, with partitions and limited access to sunlight.
Much like a school, each day runs by the same format and to the minute - you're expected to be at your desk at 9am, take your 1-hour-only lunch at the same time and leave (normally at least an hour over paid-contracted times) once your work is complete.
This is great for those who are looking for stability and routine. Employees know what is expected of them (especially in terms of punctuality and practice) and understand the ramifications of tardiness.
As we've touched upon, hierarchical systems trace back to Egyptian times. The format of top-to-bottom leadership works; and the proof is that its lasted the test of time.
According to culture experts, this top-down approach is set to surge once again. This is because clear company direction is important. But, unlike other workplace culture models - such as adhocracy, market or clan - most traditional leaders believe in the old adage that too many cooks spoil the broth. By adopting an approach that rates and values employees' input by job status and hierarchy (the top-down mentality), managers can feel confident that the more experienced voice is trustworthy and thus it's more likely to be correct.
If you're looking to run your business like a carry-on-sketch, with set stereotypes and clear leaders and followers, just beware of the prejudices.
Disadvantages of a hierarchical structure
- Communication is limited and credibility is based on employment status, not life experience.
- Departmental rivalry is a biggie here. The higher the stakes are for each promotion, the higher the competition. Departmental goals can easily take precedence over company vision.
- Inflexibility within the workplace does not suit our 21st century culture. Failure to show compassion and understanding to employees’ personal schedules (commutes, childcare, sickness) breeds disrespect and demotivates.
- William Blake once said that "without contraries there can be no progression". Remaining stagnant in a fast-paced world where competitors and choice increases day on day can be extremely dangerous for business.
- An hierarchy company could face higher organisation costs due to the multiple layers of upper management. To keep these costs down, budgets, bonuses and financial incentives may be taken and spread thin between the majority of workers that sit at the bottom.
So that's it. The pros and cons of hierarchy all wrapped up in one blog post. Whether hierarchy is a great marker for your company and employees depends on your own company goals, ethos and personal preferences.
The truth is, whichever culture you decide to adopt, neither top-down nor bottom-up leadership work well as absolutes. Remember that rules sometimes need to bend and that developing a consistent, clear managerial approach is the real route to success.
If hierarchy isn't your cup of tea, check out the other three company culture models.
Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler
An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter as of February 2023, Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With a passion for guiding readers to solutions for their HR woes, she enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: From employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.