Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Egalitarian Tall Tales

By Richard Conniff
Basic Instincts
The New York Times
June 18, 2007

A few weeks back a puff piece in a New Zealand newspaper extolled a trucking company that “has fostered an egalitarian culture … and does not believe in hierarchy, bureaucracy or superiority.” The same article also noted that company headquarters features this saying in bold text on a lobby wall: “The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.”

Are you sensing a mixed message here about the egalitarian ideal? (But, wait, maybe you’d better check with the boss before you get back to me on that.)

Modern companies often claim to embrace the egalitarian and disdain hierarchy. They like to boast that they have no reserved parking spaces, no executive dining rooms, everyone working together on a first-name basis and modest cubicles for all employees — even C.E.O.s like Meg at eBay, and John at Cisco. No hierarchies here, thanks, not us.

And I think they are fibbing.

In every human organization to which I have ever belonged, I’ve always known precisely where I stood in the hierarchy. And I bet the folks who work for Ms. Whitman and Mr. Chambers do, too. I’ve come to believe that our instinct for hierarchy isn’t merely an inevitable human condition. If we could just stop pretending that hierarchies don’t exist, we might even see that they can actually be beneficial.

A long line of academic thinking says the opposite: that hierarchy is a modern imposition on free-spirited, brother- and sisterly human nature. The traditional tribes to which we belonged through almost all of human history were fiercely egalitarian, according to anthropologists.
But the academics go wrong, I think, on several counts.

They mistakenly treat egalitarian gestures, like sharing food, as the mark of egalitarian societies. But these gestures often tend in the opposite direction; they are the means by which shrewd leaders consolidate power. I suspect that anthropologists also often fail to recognize hierarchies because hierarchies tend to be invisible. The etiquette is so subtle that even insiders conform to it without being fully conscious of it.

For instance, when primatologist Terry Maple got his first teaching job at a Georgia university, he thought tenured faculty would be free from tiresome hierarchical behaviors. (Go figure.) Then he arrived early for his first department meeting and found a seat in the third row. Another faculty member soon came in and stood impatiently at the end of the aisle.

“Well, what’s going on, Tom?” said Maple.

And Tom said, “You’re sitting in my seat.”

Maple got up and moved one seat over, and Tom said, “Now you’re sitting in Professor Smith’s seat.”

Having been trained to study behavior, Maple took notes in subsequent meetings and documented a rigid seating order, with proximity to the chairman reflecting relative power, even when the meetings moved to a new room. It was an invisible hierarchy.

We seem to have evolved to deny the existence of such hierarchies even as we subscribe to them with all our hearts. At one California company, for instance, subordinates — sorry, associates — stand outside the CE.O..s office and air-knock to get his attention, rather than brazenly rapping on the glass door. They think they’re just being polite. But it’s what any animal-watcher would call submissive approach behavior.

So how could this sort of thing possibly be beneficial? Aren’t the perquisites of hierarchy, like a bigger office or a better title, the cause of endless workplace bickering and politics?

On the contrary, a relatively settled hierarchy actually means less bickering, not more. Fighting is five times more likely to occur in chimp groups, for instance, when rank is uncertain. Roughly the same thing happens in corporations after a merger. But once a hierarchy gets established, ambitious subordinates (of either the simian or human variety) seldom mount an overt challenge, because it’s just too risky.

Having a strong leader who’s willing to act decisively can also make a group more effective at coordinating action toward some clearly stated goal. We may not like to be reminded of the hierarchy too openly. But we also find comfort, safety, and purpose within its boundaries.

Acknowledging this makes a lot more sense than the make-believe strategy of pretending hierarchy doesn’t exist. It becomes possible to talk about when the hierarchy isn’t working — when it’s slowing things down too much, or when the style of leadership is just too nice, or too brutal, for the task at hand.

Reminding yourself to pay attention to small acts of hierarchy can also help you understand how and why decisions get made: Who speaks first after the boss and does he sound a bit like an echo? Who plays hockey with the C.E.O. on Saturday mornings? Where does a subordinate glance in search of support when mounting a challenge? These subtle signals matter more than anybody likes to admit. At one company in Connecticut, where management likes to boast about its deeply egalitarian culture, all employees have email addresses on the lines of

But the founder’s email is

So here’s the tricky question: What do you do when a boss like that starts to boast that his company has no hierarchy?

Well, you could start up a good conversation by saying, “I don’t know, sometimes hierarchy isn’t such a bad thing.”

But if you’re like most of us, the odds are you’ll just smile deferentially and say, “No hierarchy? Oh, that’s so wonderful. Was that your idea?”


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