Companies & Industries

Gender and the Future of the Hierarchical Organization


When companies struggling with new complexities of competition look more closely at how they're structured, women will gain opportunity and advantage, says HBR blogger Nigel Nicholson

Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 7, 2010 12:45 PM

In my last post, I argued that we are awash with organizations that accept the fixed hierarchy as normal, coupled with what I call "the false theory of meritocracy"—a phony merit system than induces a defensive pathology among managers. I also argued that it's possible to do things quite differently, with much more organic fluidity and flat, empowered company structures.

So why aren't more businesses adopting this model?

Believe it or not, it's a matter of human nature and evolution. A rigid hierarchical model has held sway for more than 10,000 years and, for all its bad points, it still satisfies our hard-wired craving for status. Technology companies in Ireland, during that country's fast chase for growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, actually introduced unnecessary layers of pay grades for technical staff to address their needs for advancement. And kibbutzim in Israel, which were founded on fiercely democratic grounds, have always struggled to contain informal hierarchies and the need for dominance among the male members of these communities.

In the enforced egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer societies, where people needed to be able to shift responsibilities around to fit changing conditions, people held these instincts in check. One person would lead the hunt one day, another on the next. Rigid hierarchies became the norm only when humans settled into an agrarian existence, where wealth could be stored and passed between generations, creating the possibility of leadership through status and resource-based power.

Our love affair with corporate hierarchy plays right into the hands of our ancestral primate instincts for contest, dominance, and pecking orders—that is, the traditional obsessions and addictions of men in a patriarchal order.

Men know the game, love it, and play it relentlessly—as Carly Fiorina, the onetime CEO of HP discovered. In her autobiography, Tough Choices, she recounts how early on in her career, while she was at AT&T, she discovered with horror how managers crudely used the merit system to trade favors: I'll advance your man if you advance mine. "I was getting my first glimpse of how prejudice can linger in an organization, and why a meritocracy is so difficult to achieve," she noted in the book.

Women lack the same presumptions of status—which is good and bad. They are more open to cooperative relationships and ventures; but they tend to handle authority with ambivalence. After all, they are subject to conflicting expectations from men and women alike, operating in a male-dominated world. "Don't act like a man," we tell our female bosses, "but don't act like a woman either."

Now let's return to the question: Why do hierarchical models persist? The disturbing answer is that structures and systems are chosen by the people who prefer them and the people who do best in them: Men will sustain the systems in which they have been successful.

Is there hope for change? I think so. Companies that are struggling to keep up with new complexities of work and competition will necessarily have to look more closely at how they're structured (and then at how they should be structured). In many of these firms, women will, for the first time, have opportunity and advantage.

But men will not give up their playing fields without a fight.

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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