Making the case for hierarchy (Executive Series)

It's not about command and control so much as delivering on strategy
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/22/2016

There’s been an interesting shift in recent years toward holacracy, with flatter organizations shying away from complex layers of management and hierarchy. 

Part of the reason might simply be hierarchy has developed something of a bad rap — there are a lot of misconceptions about the idea, and no real common understanding of what the word means, said Julian Chapman at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto. 

“The word has been around for obviously quite some time. But… what does that actually mean to you?” he said. 

Hierarchy can be interpreted to mean organization, levels, power over others, control, limits, a way to organize work, discipline, a motivator, demotivator or accountability for risk, said Chapman, who is president of Forrest & Company in Toronto and a former brigadier-general in the Canadian Armed Forces. 

But one thing that’s noticeable about all these definitions is the preconceived notions about the word hierarchy, he said. 

Chapman has experienced hierarchy from a rather unique vantage point: After a 34-year career in the military, he has come to understand it not as an unnecessary byproduct of corporate bureaucracy, but a natural and necessary occurrence that facilitates the delivery of strategy. 

“There is a reality to hierarchy. It is within us and it is natural,” he said. “And hierarchy has to occur.”

When people think about work, they tend to focus on people working side by side, managing interrelationships within the workplace, said Chapman. 

“But that belies the fact that within organizations, we exist to deliver the strategy,” he said. “As a soldier, I deliver the strategy of the nation. As an employee within my corporation, I am there to deliver the strategy. So that means that there has to be some form of control because (otherwise) I could create my own strategy.”

Negative connotations 

Strategy is one of those interesting words — like innovation or hierarchy — that means different things to different people, said Chapman. 

“When I say ‘strategy’ I’m talking about the end state of the organization — the vision, the mission, the objectives. The end state, rather than the plan to get there. So I’m talking about the end state of what we want to be as an entity,” he said. 

“In order to deliver the strategy, there has to be some degree of clarity on how we’re going to get that done.”

And that’s where hierarchy becomes a necessity. 

Generally, the power dynamics are structured so work is delegated downwards from the top, said Chapman. 

“Alicia delegates to Bob, who then delegates from there to his own direct reports,” he said. “It’s simple, it’s straightforward — it’s the nature of the contract.”

But why does the simple concept of dividing work laterally, downwards through a power structure, become uncomfortable for some people? 

“We have notions of bureaucracy, command and control, all of these sorts of things come into our thinking,” said Chapman — that is, the moment hierarchy enters the equation, there is this negative perception that comes with it. 

“I have a theory… that there is a natural human tendency to believe that ‘I shouldn’t be the boss’ and that being bosses is a bad thing. Where I’ve developed this theory is in talking to managers because managers don’t like to be the boss. We don’t want to be put in an awkward situation where we have to say, ‘That’s not the right work’ or ‘You’re not doing that well’ or whatever the case may be. And I think there are some deep-seated beliefs in people that that notion of being a boss is actually a bad thing.”

But hierarchy and organizational power structures don’t need to carry those negative connotations, said Chapman. In fact, many of these concepts actually originated in the military, where ranks and hierarchy are essential to effectively delivering strategy. 

“One little-known fact in Canadian business is that many of the business constructs have actually come out of the military. The notion of empowerment came out of the military,” he said.  

“The military a long time ago figured out that ‘We’d better be able to hear from the guys in the trenches. We’d better be able to hear from the guys at the bottom, because that’s where it all happens.’”

People automatically make this assumption that the boss or the person in the power position is better than the ones at the bottom, he said. 

“Yet the ones down at the bottom are actually the ones executing the work — they’re getting the work done. And there’s an automatic presumption that somehow those people down at the bottom are less important than those who are further up in the organization.”

Identifying leaders 

At the same time, hierarchy is only effective if leaders are effective, said Chapman — but how can an employer tell if a manager is adding value?

“I posit that there are three things that prove that a manager adds value: A manager tells me what my work is; a manager sets context on why I’m doing that work; and a manager finds me the resources,” he said. 

Many managers feel they have to know how to do all the work — they think, “I have to know it in order to be able to lead it,” he said, but that’s not the case. 

“As a young platoon commander of 18 years old leading a platoon of infantrymen, I didn’t know how all the systems worked. I had 32 soldiers under my command… I had to rely on them to do their work. My work was the planning of the operation. My work was leading them when things got tough and you were pinned down,” he said. 

“I didn’t need to know the intricacies. Sure, I felt uncomfortable… but that’s the reality. There’s a great axiom that the Canadian military has always had: Know your people and promote their welfare. That is core to leadership.” 

It’s not about driving them into the dirt or lots of pushups — it’s about knowing your people and protecting their welfare, said Chapman. 

Levels of complexity 

The key distinction among the different levels in an organizational hierarchy lies in the complexity of the work. 

“There are naturally occurring levels of complexity in the workplace,” he said. 

“What is the difference, for example, between a director’s level of work and a vice-president’s level of work? Sure, there’s money that changes hands… but what’s really the difference? And for the employees, a newly promoted director hasn’t got a clue what it is to be a vice-president now.”

According to stratified systems theory, as people go further on in their life, they are able to handle more complexity and more ambiguity. 

“The nature of this complexity is that the work that (the boss) is doing is much broader — she has a much bigger picture,” he said. “I have to understand the bigger picture in order to set context. So this is how these naturally occurring levels happen.”

But this complexity is not based on skills and knowledge, said Chapman. 

“This is where some people have a little bit of discomfort. The complexity is based on cognitive capacity — the ability to solve complex problems, to problem-solve — which is different from skills and knowledge.” 

People naturally grow in their cognitive capacity over time, he said. 

“People can be tremendously skilled and have tremendous knowledge, but you put them into a situation where they have never done that before, and they can’t figure out how to do it, that’s an indicator of their ability to handle complexity.”

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