The Problem With Hierarchies

Posted on October 31, 2010 by Jeff Bloom

We live in a world of hierarchies… that top-down organization with a few powerful people at the top along with progressively larger numbers of individuals at each layer as we move towards the bottom. Our political structures, the military, the organization of businesses and corporations, the organization of schools and universities, and all sorts of other groupings tend to be hierarchical. Even most families tend to be organized as hierarchies. Such organizational schemes are so pervasive that most of us have no clue how to organize groups in any other way.

The problem with hierarchies is that they tend to set up dysfunctional relationships. They are not based on “seeing relationships” or on establishing effective relationships. Of course, some hierarchies may be necessary, such as with the military, where functioning is based on having centralized control. In most cases, this centralized control and power at the top is problematic for some of the following reasons:

  • Many of those who occupy lower layers tend to compete with their “layer-mates” in order to rise to the top. This competition can be ruthless and without concern for the well-being of others.
  • Those at lower layers tend to distrust and/or resent those at higher layers in the hierarchy.
  • Feelings of inadequacy and apathy are fostered.
  • People who occupy the lower layers tend not to have a stake in the organization and do not take the work seriously.
  • An attitude of going-through-the-motions is promoted.
  • The “look busy” technique is standard practice.
  • The top and the bottom are disconnected.

The alternative approach to organization is what I refer to as holarchy. Holarchies are embedded layers, where there is no top or bottom, but rather center and periphery. Control and power are distributed among the layers. Holarchic social structures are based on participation and shared “governance” among all participants. Some examples of such organizational structures include: (a) original tribal organization, where the “chief” or elders are at the center as models of leadership and wisdom, rather than as those in absolute control; (b) the Dalai Lama as model of enlightened leadership and manifestation; and (c) a few businesses where power and leadership are distributed, such as with W. L. Gore. In fact, the ideal of democracy is modeled as a holarchy with involvement and shared governance among all members.

Holarchies are based on establishing relationships and on shared power and control. Participants in holarchies operate through negotiation and consensus. The major question is: how can we move towards holarchic organization and away from hierarchy?


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