Beware the hierarchy

It is not intrinsically bad. But it forms a cocoon that ‘protects’ those on top from new ideas.

Written by Tarun Khanna | Updated: May 7, 2015 1:28 pm
Express column In areas where talent ‘lower down’ the existing hierarchy has valuable skills, elevate those skills somehow.

One of the downsides of routinely travelling across the developing world is an overexposure to hierarchy. At its most obvious, this is manifest in most accomplished individuals being accompanied by an entourage of overly fawning folks. Ostensibly, they are there to help get things done, so that the eminent person does not waste time on frivolous matters, and he or she can attend to more weighty things. Indeed, while it may not be politically correct to say so, I think there is some role for this.

But for the most part, it is overdone. The protective cabal around the eminent person unfortunately ends up doing more harm than good. Most importantly, they prevent well-meaning people from speaking truth to power. They form a cocoon that shields the eminence not just from inefficient engagement in frivolous things, but also “protects” them from ideas, and this is the kiss of death.

Why do I find this so jarring? Partly because, I suppose, in the US, my adopted country of residence, we pride ourselves at paying less attention to hierarchy, and nod in the direction of meritocracy. Sometimes, this is transparently true. For example, manual labour, even by professional classes, is hardly frowned upon. At other times, even if overstated, I think it is a fair characterisation of US society. I’m also sensitised to excessive sycophancy because I see less of this in my academic professional setting than I see in most corporate environments with which I engage routinely, since in my academic milieu good ideas confer recognition and status. These good ideas generally arise independently of hierarchy.

At a student-organised annual conference at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School recently, a student asked a visiting dignitary from India about hierarchy in his organisation. The dignitary assured her that hierarchy is much less in evidence now than it had been in the past. The student was unconvinced, and the buzz in the hall was that it was hard to see Harvard students agreeing to work in the sort of organisations that are anchored on some anachronistic notion of merit, most often related to family membership. Last time I checked, being part of a family did not guarantee competence.

Of course, hierarchy is an age-old response to economise on the time needed to otherwise manage and organise. It is not intrinsically bad. To identify dysfunctional effects, though, here are some things to try or watch out for.

The first thing is the so-called selection mechanism. Ask how one gets to one’s position in the hierarchy. If one is promoted to a position based on some merit, then it is fine. Presumably, more competent people rise to higher levels in the hierarchy. There’s a presumption that the factor that allows them to rise up the hierarchy is going to help them manage folks lower down the hierarchy. This is not always the case. In academia, for example, one rises up the hierarchy based on the quality of individual ideas and publications, but managing younger folks and administering think-tanks and universities is a completely different task than writing great papers.

Second, can the hierarchy be shaken up? If it is hard to occasionally question the hierarchy, perhaps even demote people to other positions, it raises the odds that there will be stasis and ossification. Sadly, it is difficult to really shake things up — vested interests generally protect privilege — except perhaps in times of crises, when there is no other option.

One partial solution is to generate a coexisting, sort-of reverse hierarchy. What does this mean? In areas where talent “lower down” the existing hierarchy has valuable skills, elevate those skills somehow. Famously, General Electric’s ex-CEO, Jack Welch, in an attempt to get the then-new internet-related skills infused through his management ranks, appointed young people to be the mentors of the seniormost executives; that is, the mentor and mentee roles were reversed. The conventional hierarchy, of course, remained untouched, but one has to believe that Welch’s initiative caused ideas to flow in more than the normal “topdown” way.

I emphasise that dealing with productive and unproductive hierarchy is nothing new. After all, for aeons, humans have stratified and sorted and generated hierarchies. It’s what we do. Think back to ancient Egypt, with the pharaohs and nobles and vizier on top and the farmers at the bottom. Or the Chinese emperor with the mandate of heaven and the mandarins lording it over all others. And so on.

It has even found reflection in literature and in modern practice. Henry V, in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, walks among his troops disguised as an ordinary soldier to experience their reality. Today’s King Abdullah of Jordan was rumoured to walk Amman’s streets disguised in everyman’s red and white keffiyeh; perhaps he still does it, who knows. In all these instances, the idea is to break free of the constraints of hierarchy, surreptitiously if necessarily.

Lenin allegedly compared the functioning of the Soviet Union to an orchestra of which he was the omnipotent conductor. He needed to know exactly who played what instrument and how, so that discordant notes could be corrected. Such centralisation of information, even if it had ever been effective, is anachronistic, given today’s decentralised production of knowledge.

In our so-called knowledge-based society, the perils of hierarchy — when one needs to be exposed to free-flowing ideas more than ever and to raise the odds of hearing the unvarnished truth — are getting ever more extreme. Beware.

The writer is Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School and director of Harvard University’s South Asia Institute.

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