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.