Three Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Hierarchy

Three Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Hierarchy

05.22.13Ron Ashkenas

Highlight behaviors that don't make sense

We may talk about eliminating hierarchy, but most organizations still have one. Frankly, it’s very hard to mobilize limited resources and diverse skills without someone taking charge. That’s why hierarchies have existed for thousands of years – from the days of the Pharaohs to the modern corporation.

Yet there’s no doubt that hierarchies can be dysfunctional and make it difficult to get things done. As such, we blame them for slowing things down, lowering morale, and choking off innovation.

You would think the key to a healthy hierarchy is a well-drawn organization chart, but it has more to do with company culture and behaviors. That’s why reorganizing alone doesn’t create a more effective hierarchy in a useful or permanent way. If you don’t address the ineffective behaviors, nothing will change.

But how do you know when those behaviors are off track? Let me suggest three common warning signs of an unhealthy hierarchy, and what you can do if you see them:

Hierarchical Mirroring: This is the subtle notion that meaningful discussions only occur between people of equal rank across the organization, like a diplomatic negotiation. For example, I worked with a financial services company that was trying to improve coordination between the product groups and the client relationship teams. On the product side of the house, the key experts were “managers” who reported to vice presidents. The client relationship managers, however, were all vice presidents, and only wanted to deal with their vice presidential (but less knowledgeable) counterparts. As a result the meetings included more people than necessary, the experts had less influence, and everyone was frustrated with the pace.

Decision Churn: This occurs when decisions continually need to be revisited because someone of sufficient rank in another part of the hierarchy raises an objection. In the financial services example, after many weeks of discussion, the relationship team and the product managers had seemingly reached an agreement about how to go to market together. But at that point, a vice president of finance (who had not been in the meetings) expressed some concerns and sent the team back to the drawing board.

Invoking the name of the boss: This is when people tend to make decisions based on what they presume the most senior person wants. In the financial services case, one of the common expressions in the team meetings was, “The division president won’t let us do that.” Of course the division president wasn’t in the room. But invoking her name gave weight to people’s arguments, even if no one had asked her what she thought of the idea.

Given that these are deeply embedded cultural behaviors, there’s no way to change them overnight, even if you are the CEO. However, anyone – regardless of organizational level – can call them out and make people aware of them.

Often these behaviors are subtle and unconscious, which makes them seem impossible to deal with. But if you spotlight them, especially in a humorous way, their absurdity and dysfunctionality will become more apparent. For example, in one organization a colleague created a “decision churn diagram” that portrayed the long and winding journey of a typical decision. When the Executive Committee saw the chart, it sparked a good discussion and the beginnings of a more conscious approach to decision-making.

As a manager, you have the authority – and the responsibility – to constructively highlight behaviors that don’t make sense, no matter where you stand in the hierarchy. It’s not easy to do, but if you don’t try, you’ll be a passive contributor to an unhealthy hierarchy.

Have you seen these warning signs, or others?

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.

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