Deep Down, Do We Crave The Corporate Ladder?

It’s easy to complain about the red tape that comes with traditional management, but do we actually need it? A new study points to “yes.”

Deep Down, Do We Crave The Corporate Ladder?
[Image: Flickr user TheCoolQuest]

Holacracy: So hot right now.


Some of the best, biggest influencers in corporate culture are doing it, including Zappos, Github, and Medium. The alternative structuring theory isn’t your parents’ corporate ladder. No more reporting to a direct boss, who in turn reports to a series of middle- to upper-management.

When everything needs to be run up a bureaucratic chain of command, the brilliant idea or big complaint is lost in an endless game of telephone. “When there is lack of clear and effective channels for processing tensions,” says Brian Robertson, founder of HolacracyOne and Zappos’ advisor on the revamped management.

It’s easy to pine for the kind of workplace that lets everyone behave as equals. But new research out of the Duke University Fuqua School of Business shows that deep down, we really like being part of a hierarchy, and work best when the rules and roles are defined in a linear way.

“Hierarchy can often be full of injustice,” says lead researcher and management professor Aaron Kay. “But for some tasks and goals, people are better able to do their job in that environment than in a more egalitarian setup.”

The researchers asked 172 study participants to read articles that described the economy and stability of the world as random. They were then asked to assess statements that measured their desire for workplace hierarchy, such as, “In a business, it’s important for one person to make final decisions,” or, “Businesses are most effective when there are a few people who have the influence to get things done.”


Subjects who read the “mad world” types of articles were more likely to desire structure. More rigidly structured, hierarchical workplaces “promote a sense of effectiveness” when compared to egalitarian setups, according to the study notes.

Luckily, better management structures aren’t all-or-nothing situations. You don’t have to run your office like parliament, but the alternative isn’t an office that looks like Coachella, either. Giving every employee the chance to be heard, instilling transparency values, and encouraging a supportive environment are all ways to get the benefits of holacracy, without scrapping your whole system and starting over.

h/t: Triangle Business Journal

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Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.