Defining Hierarchy

Laura Freebairn-Smith Organizational Skills and Culture

Laura Freebairn-Smith

Unpublished research paper, 2006, Saybrook Institute.

Hierarchy is the dominant form of organization for human beings (as well as our relatives, the great apes). Hierarchy has dominated social structures since the beginning of recorded history. For human beings in organizations, hierarchy is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it allows for large groups to accomplish enormous tasks. Hierarchy is an efficient way of organizing human communities, endeavors, and organizations. (Leavitt 2003) On the other hand, it can be enervating and even denigrating at its worst. Hierarchy can have negative side effects such as disempowerment, disparagement, and oppression (Oshry, 1994).

Since hierarchy is our dominant form of organizing, these mixed results are problematic for anyone working in an organization. It seems that there must be either a better way of organizing that eliminates some or all of the negative effects of hierarchy, or a way to modify hierarchy to better manage its negative effects.