Is the hierarchy really a problem?

Is the hierarchy really a problem?

I meet lots of people who complain about the hierarchy and espouse the belief that “no hierarchy” is the answer.

Every single company I have been into has consultants (and employees) preaching the removal of the hierarchy with no obvious evidence as to why this makes sense. In other words, what problem are they trying to solve?

It’s a meme. It’s cool to have no management structure. It’s trendy to say “no” to management.

Sure, we don’t want layer upon layer of pointless hierarchy, but we cannot seriously expect everyone in the business to be able to (or want to) make strategic, commercial, life changing business decisions.

We cannot expect everyone in the business to have the same high, medium, and low-level view of the business details.

We cannot expect everyone in the business to understand the market, deal with shareholders, make redundancy decisions, decide on expansion plans, organise budgets, manage legal compliance, deal with low performers or any other number of things that executives and managers deal with day-to-day.

The hierarchy serves many purposes

A good one allows delegation to happen and succession planning to thrive. Delegation helps everyone get more done and it helps people prepare for the next steps in their career. People grow when they take on more responsibility. It’s a way of “the job” developing people.

The hierarchy provides different lenses and views on the business – and it lets people get on with what they’re good at – rather than having to take on vast sways of responsibility they don’t want, nor have the aptitude to tackle.

Leaders get to focus on growing and running the business rather than doing many of the activities that they have hired people to do. And the people in the business develop and grow and, in a good business, move through the hierarchy to have more influence and grow further in their careers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a reasonable hierarchy in a business – it’s the behaviours of the people in it that cause the problems.

And I think this is where many people blame the structure of the business, when the reality is the decisions, dysfunction, poor behaviours, and lack of capability is due to the people in the business – not the hierarchy itself.

Sure, get rid of layers of nonsense and bureaucracy, but don’t throw the hierarchy away. At least not until it’s super clear in your mind what purpose it serves.

And if you find yourself thinking about removing layers of the business structure then test your idea widely. You might be right, there may be too much bureaucracy and red tape and layers, or maybe it’s just poor management and leadership you’re leaning into. My bet is on the latter.

But go easy. It really is hard work being a leader and manager. And not everyone is cut out for it.

Removing the hierarchy can lead to many dysfunctions too if you’re not careful. I know someone that thought it would be a good idea to do that in his own business. He removed the layers – and his business barely survived the carnage. People took on business and life making decisions – and many of these people had no idea what caused the decision to be made, nor the effects of choosing without experience and insight. It was an experiment that lost my friends millions – and one he told me he wished he hadn’t made.

My first suggestion to anyone looking to change the hierarchy, is to look first at the people in the existing one – and their behaviours – and focus their first 🙂 The chances are you’ll find solutions to the problem.