Don’t Abolish Hierarchies—Change Them


Hierarchies often get a bad rap, and that’s understandable. Bad hierarchies can increase bureaucracy and get in the way of getting work done. But when done correctly, good hierarchies can streamline processes and provide organizations with some much-needed structure.

There are different kinds of hierarchies. Traditional hierarchies are based on job titles, are somewhat fixed, and define management and communication pathways. Dynamic hierarchies, on the other hand, are based on who has the most knowledge and experience in a specific context.

Similar to in a meritocracy, in a dynamic hierarchy, people establish their skills, and the team defers to the person best equipped to manage each situation. This model acknowledges that everyone is not equally qualified to make all decisions. Self-organization and autonomy still exist, and status and authority change with the context.

Dynamic hierarchies can include people with manager roles, but they act more as facilitators, coordinators, and servant leaders rather than controllers. With this framing, managers also help others learn what they need in order to take on leadership roles in appropriate areas, allowing the dynamic hierarchy model to continue with new leaders.

The “manager as coach” model is compatible with a dynamic hierarchy as long as coaches are selected based on their abilities to motivate and train team members as the need arises. For coaches to be effective, they need to be responsible for the team’s work. For that responsibility to be actionable, they also need to have some authority over what team members do.

A good coach will delegate freely, as doing all the work allows for neither learning nor scaling. But a coach can also remove delegated authority when a team member demonstrates that they aren’t performing at an appropriate level.

Self-organization and meritocracy are appealing in principle: Skilled people who know how to get their work done should not need supervision. But self-organization doesn’t always scale well, and a total lack of management can leave team members unsure of whom to talk to if problems arise. And having no designated people management can also make it more likely that small problems will become large ones.

Because hierarchy tends to emerge on its own, putting some conscious thought into how it is framed can help an organization work more effectively. The best advice for how to begin seems to be to acknowledge that a hierarchy exists, to make it clear that managers are there to facilitate communication and work getting done, and to make corrections when the model starts to seem more like a top-down, command-and-control environment.

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