Will hierarchical structure ever die out?

Hierarchical structure

Never been too big a fan of the hierarchical structure within companies, usually because it creates a whole host of additional issues — like when people use the intersection of hierarchy and professionalism to create a mind-blowing amount of double standards in a given office. Rooting respect only in hierarchy, i.e. “You have to respect me because I make more money than you do,” is possibly one of the most soul-draining aspects of white-collar work.

Here’s the problem, though: there’s nothing readily apparent to replace hierarchical structure. In fact, in this article on Stanford’s business school website about rethinking hierarchy, a Stanford professor says that if they gave out a Nobel Prize for management, it would go to the person who could come up with a better organizational structure that actually works. I mostly agree with that statement.

Self-management can’t really be taken to scale (nor should it, really), and other concepts like holacracy have huge amounts of issues around vocabulary and compensation models. Some orgs go and claim they’re “flat” or “agile” which usually means 12 guys got sent to an off-site, came back, and managed like the Dothraki again. Ah, corporate lip service.

So can hierarchical structure ever go away? Probably not. Here’s why.

It’s comforting to our brains

Most companies are a 27-car pileup around priority as is, but at the very least hierarchical structure allows us to say “Oh, he/she can tell me what to do more than he/she can.” This theoretically makes our work easier to manage and complete. In reality, nothing is easy, you frequently have multiple task masters on a given project, and everyone is claiming their stuff is the truly urgent stuff. We all know how that cookie crumbles.

Also, a concept like holacracy could maybe be understood by the top 10-20% of a given office. Everyone else would be confused and turned around in circles trying to figure out what a “circle” is vs. having a boss. Change is hard for people, and most white-collar cubicle drones aren’t geniuses. So hierarchical structure almost needs to stay around because, well, we don’t want more confusion in offices, do we?

But see, hierarchical structure should die

Check out this quote from Stanford:

The intuition, though, is wrong. “When you look at real organizations, having a clear hierarchy within your firm actually makes people turn on each other when they face an outside threat,” says Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Effective teamwork against threats requires not hierarchy, but egalitarianism; not centralized power, but a culture in which all voices count.

I love that line because that’s the crux of the whole issue with hierarchy — when there’s an outside threat, it leads to tons of politics and under-cutting. You even see this when the “outside threat” is just another department, i.e. people down the hall. Aside from “organization for a lazy brain of who can assign you work,” I really see almost no benefit to standard hierarchical structure.

OK, so what are we gonna replace it with?

The best answer here would simply be “more respectful bosses who treat management as a give-and-take,” but LOL ROFLMAO that ain’t happening at most companies anytime soon — read this — so let’s move on.

We could try this:

  • Have two “tracks” in a company
  • One is independent contributors
  • One is managers
  • You can make the same money on each track relative to your performance and its tie to revenue
  • Now we eliminate the problem of people becoming managers simply because you have to manage others eventually to make more money
  • The assholes who don’t even want to be managers now can be ICs and make the same
  • Now only people who at least want to try to manage others are doing that
  • Of course some of these people have no self-awareness, think they’d be great managers and will be awful — but nothing’s perfect
  • This reduces the stress of hierarchical structure because now at least you have slightly better managers or people who want to try to get better at it

So that’s one approach.

Anything with “circles” or brand-new concepts I’d toss out immediately. When a job gets a new CRM, it takes some people 19 months to learn that — and it might be part of their daily responsibilities! You think someone is gonna understand who’s in their “leadership halo?” Get the fuck out.

Final thought: I honestly think direct reports should be capped at about 7, because when you get into the 10-12+ range, that manager is really nothing beneficial for the employees and mostly just filling out paperwork 12 times a year while cursing under his breath. Why even go there?

What else you got on hierarchical structure and where we should head with it?


Ted Bauer


  1. I like the idea of getting away from a hierarchy. You’d also have to figure out a way to re-distribute the functions served by those at the top. Who is the “CEO” and meets with executives from other companies? Who negotiates on behalf of the corporation? Are the individual contributors held more accountable for what they produce, if the management team is no longer there to take the blame for project failure?

  2. Flatitude. Structure is needed for support and scale but leaders of teams should have an attitude of flat a.k.a. “flatitude”. Service leadership at its best – see yourself as responsible for supporting your team and providing what they need to be successful – this includes feedback (sometimes difficult) and goal planning and all that “management stuff”. Eliminate words like ‘report to’, ‘boss’, ‘people under me’ and really embrace it and you can go a long way towards flat while still maintaining the structure people want to fit into and the support to grow and scale a team.

  3. Take a look at natural systems. There, hierarchy is built from the bottom up, not top down. An added layer of complexity is added only when it is necessary to preserve or improve the function of those below. Nature is intensely intolerant of inefficiency or waste. In our organizations, layers are added to boost egos, create kingdoms, and enable those higher up to do “more important” work.

    Also, research has shown that our brains can’t design organizations at the level of complexity at which they need to work (particularly large orgs). Thus, we always get it wrong.

    Taken together, this would suggest that there should be hierarchy for some work functions and self-organization for others. It isn’t an either-or choice. Separate from this, I like your two-track idea. Hierarchies have never figured out what to do with solo contributors yet rely on them more and more.

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