Dismantling Pyramid Hierarchies: Why we need to choose a better system.
When we’re so used to how something is in our existing reality, it’s hard to imagine an alternative. When we rode horses, we could never have imagined cars, or planes. And when we relied on the typewriter, who could have ever imagined we would type on tiny handheld computers, let alone not even have to type but simply speak into a device and magically the words would appear on the screen. Our great great grandparents would be shocked and awed at the inventions we now see as mundane.
Our world is full of examples of evolution. Yet for some reason, we’re resistant to this evolution when it comes to work.
The way we’ve been growing and building businesses, hasn’t evolved much since the 19th century. In particular, I want to highlight our use of pyramid hierarchies.
Without even thinking about it, most new businesses, and those scaling businesses, will begin to gradually create a pyramid hierarchy; because this is just what we’re used to.
If you were to look at most corporate organisations, and SME’s, there would be one similarity – the org chart. It’s often a pyramid structure with titles next to people’s names to denote who has what authority, and who sits above who.
But just like the horse and carts before us, the pyramid is a relic.
Where it all began…
The pyramid org charts we know and detest today, emerged during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is where the first form of ‘modern’ organisational structures began to shape work life, and influence much of the corporate cultures we experience today.
During the Industrial Revolution, businesses expanded rapidly and became more complex, requiring a more structured approach to manage operations and employees. Therefore, pyramid hierarchies were seen as an efficient solution to maintain control, delegate tasks, and ensure clear lines of communication and authority. At the time, it was a simple solution, to help a complicated growth problem. (Or that’s how it was sold.)
However, the principles of scientific management, proposed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 20th century, further reinforced hierarchical structures by emphasising efficiency, specialisation, and clear divisions of labour. It was Taylor who we can thank for perpetuating pyramids as a system which is overly mechanistic, rigid, and completely dehumanising.
It is important to note, that while the Industrial Revolution marked the widespread adoption of pyramid hierarchies, earlier examples of hierarchical structures can be found in military organisations, religious institutions, and ancient bureaucracies.
But what’s so bad about top-down hierarchy? …
If you’ve ever worked anywhere in your life, I’m presuming at some point you’ve experienced the pains of working in a top-down hierarchy. If you haven’t, who are you, because we need to talk.
However, if you’re still not sold that pyramid hierarchies belong in a museum, let me explain why this way of working is not only crippling people, but even the business itself.
For clarity, pyramid hierarchies are also known as top-down, or centralised hierarchies, where decision-making authority and power are concentrated at the top. Basically, if everything is happening at the top, you’re in a pyramid.
Lack of adaptability and resistance to change
Does this sound familiar? – Unfortunately, too many traditional businesses operating in a top-down way are slow off the mark to change or adapt to the current world we live in. Covid-19 is the perfect example of this. Prior to the pandemic, businesses were snail’s pace slow at embracing more hybrid ways of working. Then suddenly a pandemic hits and remote working is created within weeks. But now as we come out the other side, many organisations are pushing people back into the office. So much for progress!
In a rapidly changing world, where a business has to keep up, centralised decision making hinders an organisation’s ability to respond quickly and adapt to new challenges. This is precisely why more agile, and disruptive start-ups are able to steal customers from legacy brands. Just look at the rise of Netflix against the demise of Blockbuster.
Limited creativity and innovation
Big ideas don’t just happen at the top – yet in traditional hierarchies this is where ideas come from. Rarely do people working in the lower levels ever get to see any of their own ideas come to life, let alone offer up solutions to organisational problems.
Typically, top-level management are seen as the big thinkers, and everyone else has to put up with being the do-ers. In some organisations you might find consultation with people occurs, but not enough to spur true innovation and creativity. Too often, it’s a mild form of collaboration at best.
As a result, ideas, and perspectives from other levels of the organisation are overlooked or undervalued, leading to missed opportunities for innovation.
Timothy Clark helps to cement this point about the restrictive nature of pyramids in his feature for Harvard Business Review. After researching organisations, he discovered the factor of Authority Bias. Timothy writes;
“Authority bias is the tendency to overvalue opinions from the top of the hierarchy and undervalue opinions from the bottom, and it eventually turns into exaggerated deference to the chain of command. Organizations tend to give the most credibility to ideas, suggestions, or points of view based on source rather than substance. In fact, source becomes a proxy for substance because we reasonably expect more competency as we move up the hierarchy. But this creates natural disincentives for those at the bottom to raise their voices. The greater the power distance, the higher the perceived risk of speaking up. Thus, the grander the perch, the rarer the feedback.”
Slower and less inclusive decision-making
In traditional pyramid hierarchies decisions have to be approved by multiple levels before anything can happen. I’ve seen everything from sales deals, holiday requests, overtime pay, to purchasing stationery take weeks all because a business needs to control every decision going on in the company.
This is not only infuriating for people within the company, but imagine how long other decisions are taking, and the time this is eating away. Let alone how this slow decision-making is impacting on performance, productivity, and customer satisfaction.
When all decisions have to be made from the top, things get bottle-necked, as EVERY decision is moving up the pyramid and piling up. Ultimately this need for control costs the company because time is also a resource.
If we link this back to the reminder that the world is moving fast; an organisation just does not have the time to be wasting on slow decision-making. Because that decision could end up being obsolete by the time it’s been signed off.
Low employee interest
The term “employee engagement” is used so frequently in the HR and business world that I feel we’ve actually become desensitised to what it means, and why it’s a sign that the world of work is in turmoil.
So, for this features sake, let’s use the word interest. Are people in your company interested in their work? – Probably not.
Playing the game of the pyramid is exhausting, and eventually people become disinterested in their work and the company. When people feel that their ideas and opinions are not valued, and that they have to follow rules made for them by people unrelated to the work they do, it all becomes too much and very quickly people mentally checkout or leave.
Try as many companies might to continue to entice and tease out motivation, it’s ultimately the system that no longer serves people.
Competing with each other to get another position up the levels. The bureaucracy that stalls forward motion. And the frequent ‘them vs us’ inequality.
Bureaucracy and inefficiency
The pure rigidity of a pyramid hierarchy can naturally create a bureaucratic environment with excessive red tape, leading to inefficiencies and wasted resources.
It’s not just the form filling and paperwork, but the rules and control mechanisms that get put in place to keep the pyramid operating in its mechanistic way. Unnecessary processes and procedures become commonplace, meaning the organisation becomes constipated by its own internal workings.
I’m sure you can think of many examples where bureaucracy has become almost laughable. From having to sign out stationery from the stockroom, doing timesheets, to lengthy reports that could be one page.
Brave New Work Author, and Workplace Guru Aaron Dignan calls this phenomenon, Organisational Debt. As Dignan explains;
“Organizational Debt is the interest companies pay when their structure and policies stay fixed and/or accumulate as the world changes. As time passes, companies create roles, structures, rules, policies, and other norms that become fixed, and often, difficult to change. This is by design. For example, a company’s travel budget may balloon one year, only to be restricted by a travel policy the next — a well-intentioned control designed to reduce expense. If that policy starts costing more than it’s saving (e.g. by reducing commercial success due to a lack of face time, frustrating top talent, etc.), it becomes an unacknowledged debt. The “interest” comes in the form of reduced speed, capacity, engagement, flexibility, and innovation that ultimately undermine the macro objectives of the firm: to survive, thrive, and achieve its purpose.”
The many layers of pyramid hierarchy can be detrimental to communication. Information has to flow through various levels in a pyramid hierarchy, which can lead to miscommunication, distortion, or delays in sharing important information.
For example, a CEO may relay information to senior executives, who then have to relay that information to other teams. This information can not only be misinterpreted but can also be misguided under false pretences should that manager disagree with the CEO.
The communication in most centralised hierarchies is top-down, and being imposed upon others, rather than within dialogue.
Top bosses never understand what’s going on at the lower levels, and the teams never have a full picture or vision of where the company is headed.
I’m being polite when I say that in most pyramids hierarchies autonomy is restricted. The common truth for most people is that they feel like they have little, to no autonomy within their work.
Again, by the rigidity and nature of centralisation, it limits people’s capacity to be flexible and agile. If people in a rigid system try to move outside of the lines, things get messy. People bump against each other, and the rules again get rolled out to control.
Restricted autonomy isn’t just bad for people feeling fulfilled at work, but in the future, it’s going to massively deter people from joining such traditional workplaces.
Gen Z are a generation who value freedom and autonomy the most, which means if your operating structure is restrictive and limiting, you’re going to miss out on the next line-up of talent entering the workforce.
Unfortunately, the traditional hierarchy is not going to meet the needs of the next generation.
Reducing our human potential
Within the pyramid people have one title and one box to fit into. How does this make us all feel? – Pretty crap.
When we’re told to only fit in one box, and stay there, it diminishes all of who we are as individuals. All our experiences, talents, skills, competencies, and passions; are all removed from the equation as we’re asked to only bring one part of ourselves to work.
By the nature of the hierarchical structure people are treated like ‘resources’ and ‘tools’. Given one job to repeat over and over again in true Taylorist fashion.
Career development is treated in the same mechanistic way. There’s one career ladder, either up or down the pyramid.
It’s no wonder then that we seek to find meaning and follow our passions outside of work, because they’re not being fulfilled inside work.
The traditional pyramid hierarchy doesn’t embrace all of an individual – it takes what it wants and leaves the rest.
Something to consider
While I’m aware that this feature is particularly scathing towards hierarchies (and for good reason), there are some cases where pyramids work. But what we need to do is make more people aware that the system of top-down is not the only way. Just like the horse and cart is still a nice ride if you’re at the petting farm, we still have other options available.
And this is the point. We now have a CHOICE about how we operate, it’s just the default that we’re still choosing a traditional system, because that’s the way it’s been done for too long.
Are you ready to evolve your organisation? Let’s chat about progressive ways of working.