First published at Medium


Nowadays discussions about hierarchy abound, especially in organisations, some arguing you need hierarchy to run an organisation, otherwise you have chaos, while others deploring the negative effects of hierarchy, such as stifling innovation, or treating humans as mechanical cogs. These debates have come to the fore with the advent of self-organising structures, self-managing organisations and more recently the hubbub around companies without bosses, networks without hierarchies, and so on.

There is no doubt that militaristic hierarchy can be toxic, especially when fostering independent creativity, innovation and autonomous problem-solving, (and I’m fully aligned with those who have a natural aversion to hierarchy as it is often applied.) Yet it seems to me just abolishing hierarchy, as many movements are trying to do, is somewhat misguided, missing the point, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Hierarchy can fundamentally be viewed as a thought tool or a cognitive skill, which enables humans to group things, ideas and concepts into categories. This ability to categorise allows us to build new constructs and prioritise things. Anyone who has ever tried to have a discussion with someone who sees the world as if it were flat, unable to distinguish between different levels of thinking, comparing dogs with animals, knows what I mean.

In fact our ability to categorise into meta-levels and create higher and lower orders of categories is a fundamental feature of our human ability to think, it is what has enabled science and technology to progress, it is what has enabled humans to evolve, for better or worse. Hierarchies represent different levels of abstraction. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with hierarchy per se.

Where things have gone pear-shaped, however, is where hierarchy has been hijacked by bullies seeking power. Associating power with hierarchy is probably related to Christian body-mind split, and the view that the mind is of a ‘higher order’ needing to control the body, treating the body as if it were some mindless loose morass which would run amok if not controlled.

Views have changed, and there is a societal awareness of the toxicity and counter-productivity of this hierarchical power paradigm. It is hence not surprising that so many people are skeptical of anything that smacks of hierarchy. And when associated with power, justifiably so. However, when blindly rejecting hierarchy indiscriminately on that basis, there is a danger that we do throw the human baby and our core ability to think & prioritise out with the water at the same time.

My view is that hierarchy should be allowed to live, even in human structures, as long it is used as a tool, and not as a rule (or as a way to rule). As I said, it is not hierarchy itself which intrinsically bad, but the misuse of it to serve the personal purposes of some domineering people.

Unfortunately organisational hierarchy is normally illustrated with the boss at the top reigning over the various branches, the ‘subordinates’, who replicate the same structure further below. I prefer to draw organisational diagrams, if at all, the other way round, with the ‘highest’ level at the bottom, branching upwards, holding space and nurturing the ‘lower’ levels at the top, where the main value creating activities of the organisation are performed. This way customers, shop-floor staff and suppliers are no longer governed by corporate bosses and shareholders ruling at the top, but are themselves the main players, supported by co-ordinating stewards now at the bottom.

The purpose of hierarchy in human organising became very clear to me from the work of Edwin John in India with his Children’s and Neighbourhood parliaments. Edwin John has spent a lifetime empowering both children and local communities through local ‘parliaments’. These neighbourhood parliaments get together regular to make their own decisions about things affecting their communities.

Imagine a village, a street, and a neighbourhood say of 20 houses, whose residents meet regularly to determine key aspects in the community (street cleaning, education, sewage etc). With 200 houses in the street there may thus be around 20 such community parliaments. Let’s say now there is a matter concerning the whole street, this affects the other 20 neighbourhood parliaments, and all communities in the street have to be involved in the decision-making. It is difficult to have meetings of 200 households — the more people involved, the more cumbersome meetings become.

So what Edwin John has done is to have each community elect a representative of each circle, of each neighbourhood parliament. The representatives of each community then meet to decide at a street level, each representative representing their community who elected them, thus creating a meta-circle. By nature this is now a new ‘higher’ level of hierarchy.

This does not automatically mean, however, that the meta-level has power over the community they represent. Indeed to ensure this does not happen Edwin John has given each community the right to recall their representative and elect someone else, if they feel he or she is no longer representing the community. Not in 4 year’s time, but immediately! This is very different from the kind of representation UK parliamentary representatives see themselves taking on, who once elected seem to take things into own hands. In Edwin John’s neighbourhood hierarchy the essence of governance is still very much at the local level, and hierarchy is used as a bridging tool between communities.

So we have here an example where hierarchy is being used benevolently, with huge positive effect. So when thinking of hierarchy, rather than throwing the baby out with bathwater, I invite you to use this example to reframe the way we use hierarchy in human organisations. This is in my view closer to the kind of cognitive hierarchy I mentioned at the beginning.

This is not always easy, but whenever we get stuck, or start falling into the trap of treating hierarchy as power-over rather than power-with or different levels of abstraction, we should remind ourselves of the purpose of the hierarchy, starting from the local. Turn the hierarchy upside down, so that the visionaries “at the top” are now stewards at the bottom serving the community, the shop-floor and the ‘locals’ adding value.

The recall button is key to keeping hierarchy away from the hungry wolves. Rather than just throwing hierarchy out completely and losing our baby, let’s ask ourselves who is serving whose needs. And if it is not the community’s needs, just recall the elected representative, immediately!