Could hierarchy die out as millennials dominate the workforce? Not so fast, my friend…

I wrote back on New Year’s Eve (because my life is enthralling) about Zappos’ corporate culture and the idea of “holacracy,” or a “distributed authority system” that basically gets rid of the traditional manager/”boss” idea. A lot of people over 35 right now would look at that and say “(Expletive) (expletive) millennial (expletive).” Indeed. Zappos is often considered a pretty forward-thinking company, especially in terms of employee engagement, but here comes the big question: as people born between 1982 and 1992 (vaguely the time period for millennials, which no one can really agree upon) begin to dominate the workforce, do styles of management need to change? Will millennials essentially destroy the idea of hierarchy?


Here’s a new paper from a Stanford business school professor (Jeffrey Pfeffer) called “You’re Still The Same: Why Theories Of Power Hold Over Time And Across Contexts.” The paper is better summarized here, including this snapshot:

Why do traditional power structure have such staying power? One reason is that hierarchies still work. Pfeffer writes that “relationships with bosses still matter for people’s job tenure and opportunities, as do networking skills.” He notes that research shows hierarchies also deliver practical and psychological value, in part by fulfilling deep-seated needs for order and security. Another is that individuals who believe in their own competence and above-average qualities are more likely to take action at work, says Pfeffer. Taking action on the job provides opportunities for success, and success means advancement at the company — including more power and control over others — perpetuating a hierarchical structure.

The hierarchical organizational structure is also rooted in workers’ need to bask in reflected glory and be with the winners. That desire, Pfeffer says, may help explain why people will not only work within the constraints of a traditional power structure but also voluntarily work for difficult bosses. “It may come from the drive to have one’s genetic material survive, which requires being able to first discern and then associate oneself with the individuals and groups most likely to win in fights for survival,” he writes. And power and winning create a self-reinforcing dynamic. Talented people associate themselves with success and attract other talented people to their side, making continued power and success more likely.

All of the above is interesting, although some of it may be more of a reach than other parts. I think there are some fundamentally basic reasons (and I’m just talking in the U.S., because power dynamics are different across cultures, especially in Asia/Scandinavia) why people like hierarchies. First, in the U.S., the job market sucks, despite what people tell you. So when you get a job and you need a paycheck to make rent + buy food + travel to see friends, you deal with whatever the structure is and likely you don’t complain as much (except to those friends you’re traveling to see). Second, hierarchies are simple, and most people honestly aren’t that bright and lack the ability to contextualize relationships quickly. A hierarchy allows you to say “He/she tells me to do this and I do it, end of story.” That’s transactional and that’s work, and those things can comfort people. Third, have you ever been on a conference call where someone asks a question and there’s not a clear person to whom it’s directed? Guaranteed 10 seconds of silence. Flow charts and hierarchies are important simply because it makes it clear “who deals with what” and “who’s ass is on the line if something flops.” That’s part of why CEOs make crazy money — same reason anesthesiologists do — because their ass is ultimately on the line. They assume the risk inherent at the top of the hierarchy. Then there’s this, also from Pfeffer:

Finally, the hierarchical power structure allows workers to manage the cognitive discord that results from trying to reconcile two incompatible ideas at the same time — that a person is successful and powerful yet may also be fundamentally flawed in some ways, like a bad manager. When it comes to power and leadership, we generally presume someone successful has many positive traits, writes Pfeffer, “regardless of whether they actually possess these characteristics.” Accordingly, we “reevaluate the powerful in ways that create or infer positive traits, even if such traits are not real.”

This is interesting stuff, because admittedly, most managers are not that good.  There is kind of a reverence around people who achieve certain levels of professional success, both in friend circles and in communities like LinkedIn, but while success is largely a function of hard work and productivity (I do still believe that), it also involves aspects like “dressing the part” and “playing politics” and, quite frankly, “luck” and “timing.” Just because a person is a SVP at a Fortune 100 company doesn’t mean they necessarily possess boatloads of positive traits. They very well might, but if they do, ’tis more of a correlation than a causation.

So it all comes back to this: you have this millennial generation soon to dominate the workforce, and they’re often perceived/painted in the press as kind of a “whatever” or “we want experiences” generation. So they’ll come in presumably looking for a Zappos culture and find an ExxonMobil culture and the world will collapse? No. Rather, they’ll adapt to the culture they enter because that’s what humans do; the idea of “get up and just do it” is pretty uniquely human in some respects. Millennials dominating the workforce will change some things about work and how we approach it, but so too will things like peak oil, the rising cost of flights, where people want to live in 50 years, how technology disrupts, etc. It’s all a contextual quilt, you know?


Ted Bauer


  1. I’ll be thinking about this post all week. My first take is, well, OK BUT… Swing to the left, swing to the right. Invariably we will end up in the middle. OR swing to the right again, which is what is actually being postulated here. I think Gen Y (I think it is 1980-1995 ish) will change the world. And what they left unchanged will be normalized by Gen Z coming up their tail. (A slightly more conservative group.) I don’t think that soul sucking jobs will or should survive just because of the economy and I am rooting for the underdog here. Everyone wants to cry foul on Gen Y but they will do more good than harm. Just wait….for the experience.

Comments are closed.