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In Defense Of Hierarchy

The word “hierarchy” gets no respect. Except for popes, generals, executives, and managers, who tend to thrive exquisitely in command and control hierarchies, many people associate hierarchical social structures with ineffectual bureaucracy, back-stabbing politics, patronization, unfair distribution of status and rewards, and suppression of individual initiative.

Despite all the bad press, hierarchically structured social systems do have benefits; even for those residing in the lowest tiers of the pyramid.  One benefit that hierarchy serves up is… orderly execution of operations:

Imagine if students argued with their teachers, workers challenged their bosses, and drivers ignored traffic cops anytime they asked them to do something they didn’t like. The world would descend into chaos in about five minutes. – Duncan J. Watts

In “Influence” Robert Cialdini writes:

A multi-layered and widely accepted system of authority confers an immense advantage upon a society. It allows the development of sophisticated structures for resource production, trade, defense, expansion, and social control that would otherwise be impossible. The other alternative, anarchy, is a state that is hardly known for its beneficial effects on cultural groups and one that the social philosopher Thomas Hobbes assures us would render life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I don’t agree with Mr. Cialdini that the alternative to hierarchy is pure anarchy, but his point, like Mr. Watts’s, is a good one.

Management “guru” Tom Peters (to whom I used to closely listen to prior to reading Matt Stewart’s brilliant “The Management Myth“), sums it up nicely with:

Hierarchy will never go away. Never!


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  1. March 22, 2014 at 3:09 pm

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