Healthy Hierarchies

I’ve been reading through The Boundaryless Organization this week, and the chapter on hierarchies quite intrigued me. It’s so easy to criticize hierarchies and bureaucracies, but in that criticism, we fail to realize the obvious: hierarchies are inevitable. They will always exist in the absence of anarchy. Anarchy is only a temporary state anyways, as inevitably, a hierarchy will arise even amongst anarchists. Ashkensas et al (2002) devote a considerable amount of space to healthy hierarchies, and to “rewiring and retuning the hierarchy”. Their content is 8 years old now, but completely relevant to today. It is also a refreshing outlook on a complex topic.

Maybe it’s youth, but many young up and coming leaders (like myself) spend a lot of time despising hierarchies, rather than learning and studying them. We forget that they will always exist, and that there is possibly such thing as a healthy hierarchy. But what is a healthy hierarchy? Is three levels of management really healthier than sixteen? On paper maybe it is, but in actuality, a healthy and flexible hierarchy that helps the mission of the organization is better than an unhealthy “boundaryless” organization. No one wants to work in an organization where no decisions get made.

Ashkensas et al (2002) argue that a major myth about hierarchies is that delayering creates healthy hierarchies (p.52). It is easy for CEOs to promote “we’ve cut three layers of management this year” but forget that hierarchy is also a cultural mindset, not just boxes on an organization chart. It is complex to begin fixing an unhealthy hierarchy, but the solution is definitely not trying to eliminate it altogether.

Ashkensas, R., Ulrich, D. ,Jick, T. & Kerr, S. (2002). The boundaryless organization. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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