Lindred L. Greer is an associate
professor of organizational behavior
and the Younger Family Faculty Scholar
for 2017–2018 at Stanford GSB.
Illustration by Shout
A look at when flat structures work
and when someone needs to be in charge.
BY DYLAN WALSH
may reduce employee friction. Engineers,
meanwhile, are more insulated from the
threat posed by engineers at other companies;
standard hierarchies may work well in
WHAT IF EVERYONE HAD
In some cases, hierarchy is an unavoidable
part of the work. Greer is currently studying
the interaction bet ween surgeons and
nurses, and surgeons lead by necessity.
“If you took the surgeon out of the operating
room, you would have some issues,” she says.
But surgeons’ dominance in the operating
room can also be problematic, creating
dysfunctional power dynamics. To help
solve this problem, Greer believes that the
expression of hierarchy can be moderated.
That is, surgeons can learn to behave in
a way that’s less hierarchical.
Navy SEALs exemplify this idea. Strict
hierarchy dominates out in the field: When
a leader says go left, they go left. But when
the team returns for debrief, “they literally
leave their stripes at the door,” says Greer.
The hierarchy disappears; nobody is a leader,
nobody a follower. “They fluidly shift out
of these hierarchical structures,” she says.
“It would be great if business leaders could
do this too: Shift from top-down command
to a position in which everyone has a say.”
Importantly, she reiterated, this kind of
change is not only about keeping employees
happy, but also about enhancing performance
and benefiting the bottom line.
Taken together, these issues raise
a fundamental question for Greer: What would
it mean to wholly replace hierarchy? The
small movement around Holacracy, she noted,
which is designed to flatten organizations
and distribute decision-making authority,
has not yet demonstrated great success. “I’ve
always said that if there were a Nobel Prize for
management, it would go to the person who
finds an organizational structure that’s not
based on vertical differentiation, on hierarchy,
on leadership,” she says. “Other than
Holacracy there have to be ways to organize
that don’t imply inequality and inequity
— ways to organize that are more mutually
respectful and reinforcing.” Δ
Defined hierarchy. Commanding leadership.
These corporate ligaments secure firms in
the face of threats and unify them against
competition. Few beliefs are more widely
held in business.
The intuition, though, is wrong. “When
you look at real organizations, having a clear
hierarchy within your firm actually makes
people turn on each other when they face
an outside threat,” says Lindred L. Greer,
a professor of organizational behavior
at Stanford GSB. Effective teamwork
against threats requires not hierarchy, but
egalitarianism; not centralized power,
but a culture in which all voices count.
Along with Lisanne van Bunderen of
the University of Amsterdam and Daan
Van Knippenberg of Drexel University,
the research team teased out this finding
through t wo complementary studies.
In the first study, an experiment, teams
of three students developed and pitched
a consultancy project to a prospective
client. Some of these teams were nonhierarchical, while members of other teams
arbitrarily received titles: senior consultant,
consultant, junior consultant. Likewise,
some teams faced no rivals, while others
were told they were competing with a rival
firm for clients. The researchers found that
the subset of hierarchical teams facing
competition with rival firms struggled
with infighting while the egalitarian teams
cooperated on their work.
In their second study, they investigated
a Dutch health insurance company. They
provided surveys to 158 existing teams
within the firm. The surveys measured the
degree to which teams felt egalitarian or
hierarchical and how much they perceived
conflict with other teams in the company.
Company managers then rated team
performance. Their results corroborated the
experimental findings: Hierarchical teams
that felt like they were competing against
other teams generally underperformed, while
egalitarian teams did not. ( The results are
forthcoming in an article for the Academy of
OF A COMMON FATE
“The egalitarian teams were more focused
on the group because they felt like ‘ We’re
in the same boat, we have a common fate,’”
says van Bunderen. “They were able to
work together, while the hierarchical team
members felt a need to fend for themselves,
likely at the expense of others.”
While this research targeted a specific
theoretical gap in academic literature,
the findings raise important questions for
practitioners: Should hierarchy be avoided?
If so, how can an organization arrange itself?
How can leaders lead?
Greer emphasized the need to consider
context when answering these questions.
An organization that doesn’t face external
threat — the U. S. Department of Agriculture,
for instance — should function perfectly
well with a bureaucratic and hierarchical
structure. In a highly competitive market,
though, egalitarian tendencies may support
employee cooperation and, consequently,
Within single organizations, too,
different departments may benefit from
different structures. Sales teams generally
face steady competition from companies
with similar services or products. Given this,
promoting an egalitarian culture in sales