Why We Love Hierarchies

A few weeks ago, I reviewed some recent research on why humans actually perform better when placed inside groups with clear power structures. Although the research was done in the laboratory, it offered some surprising implications for workplaces looking to tear down their structure and flatten their company. As it turns out, we may not just be more effective working in hierarchies…we may actually prefer it.

A study recently published by Larissa Tiedens of Stanford and Emily Zitek of Cornell University found that people actually prefer hierarchical organizations. Their article, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that it’s easier for humans to grasp and manage social relationships when their structured in a hierarchy and that ease can actually lead to feelings of being more successful. The article outlines five separate experiments all designed to examine the prevalence and utility of hierarchical relationships. Two studies in particular stand out.

In the first (technically second experiment in the article), participants were shown three diagrams, each containing seven mens’ names. In one diagram, there was a clear power structure, with one person at the top and two more levels outlined. In another diagram, the seven names were presented in a circle with no apparent power structure. In the last diagram, the seven names were “chunked” into random groups with no clear power structure. The participants were shown each diagram for seven seconds and then asked to reproduce it from memory. If they failed, they were shown the diagram again and were given as many repeats as needed to complete their reproduction. The participants were able to recall the hierarchical diagram in significantly fewer tries than the other two diagrams and reported they “liked” that diagram more than the others.

In another experiment (the fourth in the article) participants were given a case study about a failing business and told the companies goals were to downsize by 10 percent, phase out a regional office and increase the number of women in senior roles. The case study materials were similar for all participants but with one variable changed: the organizational chart. In one version, there was little to no hierarchy, while in another a much more rigid power structure existed. Participants made recommendations based on the stated goals and then rated their ease of doing so. Those participants in the hierarchy version of the case say they had a much easier time making recommendations and reported a significantly more positive view on the fictional companies future.

On the surface, it may seem that hierarchies are an invention of man – an invention were running out of uses for. These results, however, suggest that our natural tendency is to prefer hierarchical relationships. They appear to be far easier to grasp than egalitarian ones. This doesn’t mean that the movement to flatten organizations should be abandoned. The results do serve as a reminder that when eliminating hierarchy, organizations must be ready to replace it with a similarly effective structure.


  1. says

    To infer that hierarchies are a more effective organisation design based on it being easier to remember a list of names when presented in a hierarchical structure is an enormous leap. Participants might have ‘liked’ the hierarchical structure because it was easier to remember but this doesn’t tell us anything at all about how much they would have ‘liked’ or been motivated, or productive actually working within such a structure for a period of time. Conversely, there are many real-world examples like Semco in Brazil, WM Gore (makers of Gore-Tex), Zappos, Valve Software, and daVita (Fortune 500) who have embraced decentralisation and been hugely successful with highly engaged employees.

    In the second experiment you mention, of course it’s much easier for a layman to understand and suggest changes to a highly structured, hierarchical organisation chart and therefore they prefer it. Again, this doesn’t actually tell us anything at all about how the organisation would perform in reality which is what matters. However looking at companies like the ones I mentioned there is overwhelming evidence that removing hierarchy can be incredibly successful.

    There is a tendency for psychologists to over-abstract human behaviour in the lab and apply it to organisational theory. When there are so many living case studies of successful non-hierarchical organisations I would encourage people to study them in order to make their mind up.

    On your last point, have you seen the research by David Erdal, looking at hunter-gatherer tribes which suggested that hierarchies are not a natural human tendency? He was trying to explain what is is about human nature that has made democratic, worker-owned cooperatives such a successful model for business and made some interesting findings.

    • says

      Tom, I agree and I don’t think the research goes that far. The study implies, and I second, that hierarchies appear to be a subconscious favorite in people’s mind. It’s easier to comprehend a social group when there is an order. Even the hunter-gather tribes you mention may have some other social order in place (the family perhaps) that reduces the cognitive tension. The hierarchy developed as societies got larger and more complex. Whether they are the most optimal form of structure is still up for debate. This study, though, demonstrates that some clarity about social order should probably be given. Even organizations like W.L. Gore, flat as flat can be, have imbued into their culture and idea of “how things work” that likely provides the clarity needed. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  2. says

    The negation of a norm does not follow from this reported experiment. E.g. caution on “This does mean that the movement to flatten organizations should be abandoned” is apt. Cognition, especially in social setups such as organisations is far more multi-dimensional. Leadership is in fact more distributed than flat! Hierarchy reduces cognitive strain and is languaged as ‘clarity’ or ‘simplicity’. Dynamic organisation is about complexity, not complication. We will indeed need more fluid structures to provide alignment with complexity, whether flat or otherwise. If the world is less complex, perhaps the experiment told well.

    • says

      Joseph, great points. We will definitely need a more apt structure, but we need to remember to bring the clarity too. Thanks.

  3. says

    The current hierarchical model is a relic of the mechanistic age– one person, one task, linear and oppressive by nature. As Joseph, above, has asserted, our age is now one of complexity and interdependence, where it is necessary to harness diverse thought-power in partnered relationships, versus parent-to-child ones– in the words of Traci Fenton at WorldBlu.

    This post reminded me of Lewis, Lippett and White’s leadership experiment with young boys, where the task of the experiment was more complex. Aggression among the boys was increased in an autocratic model (hierarchy). Looking around at the state of our world today, who can refute that the pervasive hierarchical systems we inhabit are co-related to the high rates of violence, substance abuse, war and the phenomena of “the 1%”.

    Emery and Trist’s work with socio-technical systems– recognizing the interrelatedness of people and structures– maintains that a move away from a hierarchical model of organizing toward responsible autonomy responds more effectively to increasing world complexity, the need for more harmonious human interrelatedness and environmental whitewater.

    I also refer to the latest HOW report– a joint effort between LRN and the Boston Research Group– where it shows Self-Governance is a more successful organizational paradigm in essential success categories like Trust, Resiliency, Operational Efficiency, Innovation and Customer Satisfaction.

    I refer to the last line of your article, David, where it is not a “one to one” shift, but a process of transition. Organizations, in the shift away from hierarchy to a more cooperative model will need to be prepared for the confusion, anxiety and challenges they will face in their change efforts. It is normal for the organization to go into a period of conflict, hibernation and slowdown, while our human brains and behaviors catch up to what we say we value.

    It will be tempting to abandon the effort and “snap back” to familiar hierarchy, dismissing cooperative models as impossible. Those who push through the challenges and go deep with their self-explorations and re-organization efforts will be those who thrive in a future that is, by necessity, driving us toward complex problem-solving and survival modes.

    • says

      Tracey, I totally agree with your idea about transition. I don’t think these results should be interpreted as a call for return to hierarchy. Instead, I think they serve as a warning that the transition will be rough and perhaps we should think more about that process. Too many organizations attempt to flatten only to see the end result be even MORE oppressive since those in higher levels take more power away from lower levels. I also think we need to examine what institutions require what degree of hierarchical power structure. Military, Police and similar organizations seem to respond fairly poorly to shared leadership ideas and perhaps that’s for the better. Overall, however, organizations will NEED to transition to a more appropriate structure, but these results remind us this will be a long and perhaps painful road. Thanks for the great comment.

  4. says

    Thanks for engaging with the challengers David. I think what we’re responding so strongly to is your statement ‘the movement to flatten organizations should be abandoned’ which flies in the face of far more sophisticated research and large numbers of case studies which strongly suggest the opposite.

    Interestingly, the military have actually been adopting more decentralised decision-making in response to ‘the fog of war’ where it’s just impossible to understand and manage a complex battlefield, in real-time, from a central command center. Also, the WorldBlu founder Traci Fenton tells a tale of speaking to an audience of Navy personnel in the US about organisational democracy and how a senior leader jumped on stage and said “This is the future. We must learn to work this way.”

    The one thing we can agree on is that the path to change is difficult and democracy/flattening/decentralizing is not a silver bullet and does present its own challenges. However, as the research and case studies point out, these challenges are solvable if approached with the right mindset and design. When you get it right – and many are doing so – the rewards are large.

    • says

      Tom…Oops…That was actually a type and I just fixed it. Ha!

      My intent in the piece was to urge caution. There’s a growing body of research supporting flat hierarchies, but that could also be representative of the trend in researching flattening hierarchies. I just believe need to keep a strong structure in place, regardless of how it is arranged.

  5. says


    Great piece! I’m not of the school that believes that flatter is better. I do believe that Hierarchies aren’t inherently bad, but poorly designed and implemented ones are. Sadly.. those kind really represent the vast majority of our places of work these days.

    We need well defined ones, with appropriate accountabilities and the authorities to match so that we can unleash the talent and keep folks engaged. When leaders can confidently exercise the authority they have, organizations become nimble, flexible, and able to meet the challenges of both a dynamic marketplace, and of how to engage and lead a high performing work force.

    • says

      Gene, a great point. Reminds me of Hamlet, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” It’s possible to run a highly effective, ethical organization in a hierarchy. It’s also possible to do that without a hierarchy (depending on the mission of the organizations).

  6. Jack Douglas Cerva says

    Great words and discussion… you must have hit a nerve in us David. Let’s paraphrase Hamlet.., “nothing is good or bad but leadership makes it so”. In any org structure flat or several levels of hierarchy, in emergency situtions or creative circles .. it seems in my own expereience that it is how those next steps are developed and delivered that help us perform or cause us to cringe. Not necessarily just the organizational boxes and lines.

  7. says

    I believe having a hierarchy is valuable, because it gives people a reference point on how the organization should function. It’s also a tool for leaders reinforce certain performance initiatives. Some examples:

    Loose cannon – If someone is a loose cannon and needs more oversight, the org structure is a way to place specific responsibility on a manager to keep that person in line.

    The Meek – If there is a person who should be taking on more initiative, but always asks for direction, the org structure can be used as a way to reinforce the person’s actual authority. “Look, you’re a manager, you figure it out.”

    I would argue for a reasonable but lean hierarchy that is continually being evolved to match the needs of the organization. If the hierarchy does not evolve, then you end up with the problem of too many layers and managers.

    Thanks for the good article.

    • says

      I think there’s something to the idea of lean hierarchy. From an organizational design standpoint, hierarchies are great at creating new branches and bad at removing them (save for a down-sizing). Perhaps a more fluid process of constantly evaluating where people should be place would be a good thing. The challenge there, of course, is finding where else in an organization to place them. Thanks for the comment.

      • says

        I work for an employee owned software company that has grown and changed a lot over the last seven years. It seems like we reorganize every year.

        The positives are that we do tend to prune the structure and change it as we need to.

        The downside is that people tend to become re-org weary, because the major ones take a lot of time and effort.

        I think you’re right that a constant focus on keeping a lean hierarchy is probably a good way to go, as long as you keep the major re-org’s to a minimum.

        • says

          All true. I think people get re-org weary (great description) when the re-org goes along with an massive promise that things will be better once we re-structure. If the intent is to always stay lean, then perhaps folks will get less weary…just a theory. There’s probably a myriad of other factors.