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Don't Kill the BossesEscaping the Hierarchy Trap
By Samuel A. Culbert John B. Ullmen
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Samuel A. Culbert
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRecognizing the Hierarchy Trap
Whether we're talking the boardroom at Procter & Gamble or the board of your PTA, you can count on hierarchy to screw things up. It's a paradox. On one hand, hierarchy provides people a basic orientation—it defines accountability and who has to answer to whom. On the other hand, it perverts relationships, bleeding candor and quality from almost every discussion that's held. As a feature of everyday work, hierarchy is a dimension people can't do without, but one that causes them not to do very well.
There's little question that hierarchy is the backbone of almost every well-functioning organization. It provides the architecture that structures a workforce. It designates authority, assigns responsibility, clarifies roles, and is a resource for settling jurisdictions and disputes. It is the primary mechanism for ensuring that work units set their compasses to corporate concerns and interact constructively with every group, even those units that appear uncooperative. Hierarchy causes people to be productive and efficient, keep their commitments, and stand accountable for errant actions. It authorizes leadership and insures respect for expertise. It specifies organizational purpose, stipulates functions, solidifies order, and provides control.
Hierarchy is part of growing up, learning the ropes, and being socialized. It's internalized in the lessons people learn about deferring to rank and observing rules. Those at the top of a hierarchy are allowed to dominate—to require, specify, and judge. Those lower down are expected to knuckle under, justify their actions, and stand accountable for results. People are taught that breaking ranks by ignoring hierarchy readily leads to anarchy, chaos, disorganization, and cascading ineffectiveness. And all of this is hardwired in each individual's thinking, even more so than what is specified in the books.
Every organization is layered with hierarchy; we're hard pressed to imagine one that works well without it. Usually, hierarchy flows from the person who is highest on the organization chart and authorized to make decisions. It also emanates from those with expertise, prestige, and image. It's even attributed on the basis of who is considered most socially and physically attractive. There's hierarchy in having money and friends in influential places. In fact, it's hard to think of any situation that doesn't come with multiple hierarchical overlays.
Hierarchy is essential; there's little doubt about that. Without it, work life would be likened to the Tower of Babel, for people would lack the means for reconciling divergent motives and differences in views. In fact, hierarchy is the chief mechanism for achieving corporate focus. Of course, one could always stop to take a vote, and some work groups operate that way. But once there's a vote, without someone to exercise hierarchical authority, integrity, focus, and efficiency are lost.
Notwithstanding the omnipresence of hierarchy and the essential needs it serves, one must also recognize that hierarchy is a cancer that causes human systems to close down. It almost always limits truth telling, authenticity, openness, and give-and-take exchange. In fact, nothing is more hazardous to the spirit of teamwork than hierarchy. Nothing more quickly attacks feelings of camaraderie and self-esteem. Hierarchy blocks originality and causes people to place efficiency and uniformity ahead of functional effectiveness and actual results. In problem solving, hierarchy creates convergence at the very moment problem solvers most need to step "out of the box" to open themselves to possibilities never before entertained. In relationships, hierarchy produces status-dominated thinking, testingthe-waters double-talk, and constraints to people acting sensibly. Predictably, it leads to participation by the numbers, filtered information, cover-ups, alienation, disorientation, anger, and depression.
Hierarchy damages morale and worse—it's dispiriting. Up, down, sideways, or diagonally, hierarchy obstructs, even negates, the possibility of straightforward, open and honest, candid conversations. In short, when it comes to relationships, hierarchy subtracts quality from every discussion and wisdom from the decisions determining the character of results.
HIERARCHY IS AN ORGANIZATION TRAP
The inability to differentiate between hierarchical structure and hierarchical relationships is precisely what makes hierarchy an organization trap. It needn't be a trap, and wouldn't be, if people realized the importance of making this distinction and had a way of keeping it in mind. As structure, hierarchy is the chain of command, the organization chart, and the road map that designates who is responsible for taking what action; who has the authority to make decisions and direct; and who is supposed to oversee and insist on corrective actions when specified results are not forthcoming. As structure, hierarchy is an organizational positive, providing the means for accountability and control.
But applied to relationships, hierarchy creates a negative dominance/subordination dynamic that works against an organization accomplishing its goals. Suddenly top-down, power-differentiated thinking appears in every interaction, and daily events take on a command-and-control demeanor in which people with more rank act as if they have the authority to require that people with less rank see and do things a certain way, regardless of individual predisposition. And as any parent with a teenager knows, a person not disposed to act as directed can evoke great resistance. Of course, grown-ups not so disposed, by virtue of personal reasoning, expert knowledge, skills possessed, or resources lacked, can marshal even greater resistance, or so it can seem when their reasoning is concealed.
Hierarchical relationships contrast with the way cooperating teammates and business partners with a common goal would interact if they were out to capitalize on each person's distinctive attributes and resources. By hierarchical relationships, we're talking most centrally about boss/subordinate interactions, but we're talking about other nonparity relationships as well. We're also talking about relationships contracting firms have with their suppliers, relationships between joint venture partners with unequal resources, and relationships firms have with independent contractors such as specialty lawyers, auditors, consultants, and travel agents. In every instance, when a relationship is engaged hierarchically, the company loses out. Thus, hierarchical thinking extrapolated to a business situation poses a burning-ember threat to any relationship that's combustible.
In this book we group the organization negatives associated with hierarchical relationships into five categories: warped communication, corrupt internal politics, illusionary teamwork, personal dispiriting, and pass-the-buck accountability. When it comes to people solving business problems and running organizations effectively, each of these negative dynamics represent significant obstacles to overcome.
We think these negatives are so blatant and onerous that as organization doctors called in to fix ailing relationships, we're constantly on the lookout for alternatives. We seek alternatives to the social conditioning that causes people to be intimidated by rank and stature to the point that they don't clearly say what they think or become self-inflated by their hierarchical stature to the point that they don't earnestly seek alternative views. And the changes had better come before too many more top-level executives and their companies get done in by what lower-level people think but don't dare say out loud and by what upper-level people hear but choose to overlook.
TWO-SIDED ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNERING IS THE ALTERNATIVE
Lately we've been using the term two-sided accountability partnering as the alternative to hierarchical relationships. It conveys the image of goodwill reciprocity leading to straightforward communications, aboveboard politics, authentic teamwork, esprit de corps, and the type of accountability that produces high-quality corporate results. Two-sided cues people to consider a reciprocal obligation to help one another in the pursuit of company goals. Accountability cues people to constrain self-interested pursuits that others might see coming at their expense. Partnering indicates a mutuality of interests that sets the stage for effective dialogue and interactive problem solving.
Two-sided accountability partnering contrasts with hierarchical relationships such as boss and subordinate, executive and manager, leader and follower, line and staff, strategist and operative, insider and outsider, central and peripheral, in the know and out of the flow, and so forth, which signal the dominance and superiority of viewpoints and ideas at the top. Two-sided accountability partnering communicates the image of collaborative action and people operating as real teammates—fully expressing themselves, filling in for one another, and jointly standing accountable for outcomes that benefit the enterprise as a whole.
As a means of illustrating the problems that accompany hierarchical relationships and the need for two-sided accountability, consider three revealing case studies. The first depicts the hierarchy trap that makes real teamwork impossible. It shows the ease with which hierarchical relationships get stuck in the logic of command-and-control and the teamwork difficulties that result. The second shows how hierarchical relationships warp communication and lead to a corrupt and manipulative brand of internal politics that can devastate an individual's career. The third displays the core dishonesty that shadows all hierarchical relationships and the ease with which positively motivated people become dispirited and self-delude. Taken together, the three cases begin our mapping of the destructive dynamics inevitable in hierarchical relationships and set the stage for appreciating the alternative logic that generates the remedies you'll be reading about in this book.
Despite a profusion of words, at no time did we see anything resembling the type of honesty and respect for differences that one expects from a true partnering relationship. Instead we saw a hierarchical relationship enabling an insecure CEO to use deception to cover over a personnel mistake. Hierarchical relationship protocol caused Lee to go a year without comprehending that his and Bill's managerial orientation were 180 degrees apart. We can only speculate about the role hierarchy played in achieving the positive quarterly results that paved the way for enterprise saving refinancing. Understandably, we never heard anyone openly debate whether this was a business or spreadsheet accomplishment.
Hierarchy allowed Bill to perform face work on Lee and Lee to perform face work on himself. Politically insensitive and isolated from the views of others, he was hierarchically deferential to the point that he got taken in by a partnering scam. Coalition building, collusion, and manipulation led to Lee's demise. Bill took all the power, even when Lee was issuing directives to levels below, while the two of them exchanged goodwill to maintain the illusion of harmony.
We've presented three cases to illustrate the destructive dynamics produced by hierarchical relationships, even when "team play" and "partnering" terms are used. Each is an instance of people exercising hierarchical power, comprehending neither the competitive forces their actions provoke nor the alternatives at their disposal. In each situation the participants easily rationalized their actions as essential to the corporation.
The first case depicts a line of managers stuck in a hierarchical trap, futilely attempting to create teamwork using the logic of command-and-control. Graphically, it illustrates how people caught up in hierarchical thinking have a difficult to impossible time seeing how to team up and partner with one another. Above all, it demonstrates a without-exception principle that we'll emphasize over and over again in this book: whenever hierarchical relationships flourish, the company loses out.
The second case presents a deeper view of the command-and-control dynamics that accompany any relationship steeped in hierarchy. Dramatically, it illustrates the ease with which hierarchical relationships lead to warped communication and a corrupt and manipulative brand of internal politics that can devastate an individual's career. It demonstrates the importance of not being taken in by illusions of team play and partnering and of figuring out whether someone's partnering talk is actually being walked.
The third case illustrates the core dishonesty that shadows all hierarchical relationships and the ease with which positively motivated people delude themselves. It shows how the tension of being part of a teamwork sham can become so great that it leaves an individual with but two alternatives: to become depressed and dispirited or to go into denial about his or her conspiratorial role. Our student was dispirited; her bosses were in denial. We think denial is a particularly amazing response when you consider that almost every hierarchical superior is a junior to someone else. As a superior he or she knows how often reality gets spun for consumption by the ranks below. As a subordinate he or she knows how often facts are withheld and personal perspectives suppressed in order to self-promote the image of good guy and loyal team member.
Why do people persist in reasoning and acting hierarchically? For many reasons, starting with a very basic and elementary one. Hierarchical relationships feel like a contour fitting baseball cap so comfortable and familiar that a person loses track of having it on. It's a relationship that's automatic. We've been socialized in a culture where people in power are able to dominate to the point that the dominated secretly dream of eventually having the same type of power, all under the guise of issuing directives that promote corporate effectiveness and efficiency. None of the three cases described achieved that result.
We are guessing that each of these situations feels familiar to you—less for their specifics, more for their runaway dynamics and logic. We're also guessing that many readers will identify with feelings of being both a hierarchical relationship perpetrator and a hierarchical relationship victim. These are but the beginning of a collage of cases that will illustrate what's off about the way relationships get conducted at work. They introduce our explanation of what's needed for teaming up and partnering with people above, alongside, and below you in any hierarchy.
Our overarching goal is to reset relationships currently structured for hierarchical mischief. We want to provide insight into the dynamics provoked by hierarchy and to explain what's needed for making the transition to a much different mind-set, one with a reciprocal accountability orientation. We're out to show you how to redirect the hierarchical, command-and-control reasoning that blocks you and your organization from delivering more of what people require to operate at peak effectiveness. In Chapter 8, we propose a corporate solution for modernizing relationships aimed at systemically righting what we find wrong. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Don't Kill the Bosses by Samuel A. Culbert John B. Ullmen Copyright © 2001 by Samuel A. Culbert. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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