A recent HBR articlebrought up the idea that leaders need to be able to transition from an “exercise of authority” mode to a “flat” mode. They claim data back this up, but the article doesn’t share the data that guide their findings. It is important to note that the studies were specific to temporary teams and virtual teams competing to develop start-up ideas. None of these accurately represent most businesses’ functions day to day. And given one of the authors; recent trouble with making up data (on dishonesty nonetheless), it is best to think of this as a helpful thought exercise rather than something that has been proven.
That said, there is an interesting corollary here to the work of David Graeber and David Wengrow, most notably “The Dawn of Everything” and their article “Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’: ritual, seasonally, and the Origins of Inequality.”
One of the book’s and the article’s themes was how humans would alternate between hierarchy and more equal forms of society in our past. Interestingly, unlike the results presented by HBR (where meetings are seen as a place where the hierarchy can be diminished), there are no patterns. The changes are seasonal; in some cases, the most equal times are when resources are scarce, and in others, when resources are most abundant.
There is no pattern here. Or, if there is one, it resides precisely in the fact that this shifting back and forth allowed mature and self-conscious political actors to be continually aware that no social order was immutable: that everything was at least potentially open to negotiation, subversion, and change. 1
What is essential is that hierarchy is not permanent. It can be a scaffold that provides support when required. And as Graeber and Wengrow share,
Social roles, corporate groups, and most everything we call ‘social structure’ does not really exist in this perspective; or, better, does not exist in the concrete, empirical way we like to imagine. It is all a kind of collective make-believe that we are continually bringing into existence. 2
The HBR article doesn’t take this concept that far. They limit where the “leader” should step back to meetings and when seeking divergent ideas. Presumably, after that leader makes the calls, as most of HBR’s articles suggest.
They end with a quote that shows the limit of their stance,
As Tommy Lasorda, the late, great manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, put it, “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”
Of course, this is HBR, but the examples from Graeber and Wengrow go much further. And they raise the question, what if rather than an argument for flat organizations vs. hierarchical ones, there were more fluid organizations?
One challenge is that a team’s manager still has power. Even if it can be dropped for a meeting, that power, the ability to hire, fire, promote, and reprimand, still exists.
How can that power be managed and minimized so a team can oscillate between hierarchical and egalitarian?
What if things could be hierarchical when required, and that hierarchy could fade away at other points?
What would it look like to completely give up hierarchical power for a season?