There’s a long line of familiar criticisms of hierarchical governance and management: it produces and perpetuates inequity, generates inefficient bottlenecks, inhibits creative collaboration, limits emerging leadership potential, promotes conflict avoidance, and creates nefarious power dynamics that leave folks in all positions feeling unsafe to be authentic, honest, and bring their full selves and potential to work.
When we place this criticism of hierarchical organizational structures in historical context, and combine it with the awareness that folks sitting a top these hierarchies are disproportionately white, male, able-bodied, economically advantaged, institutionally educated, and cis-gendered we start to see these how these hierarchies operate to rationalize and stabilize forms of structural oppression that pervade our society.
In response to these criticisms and more, many folks have sought to create non-hierarchical organizations. Generally speaking, the goals of this movement are to establish more just and equitable organizations, empower more people to contribute fully and creatively to the work, invite more honesty and connection, and accomplish collective goals more effectively. But when practitioners operate with an over-simplified understanding of hierarchy, we end up creating systems that don’t actually work.
We reject hierarchy and end up with the tyranny of structurelessness: lack of clarity, lack of accountability, lack of direction, and the new and equally problematic power dynamics that arise in the absence of clear structure.
In my experience helping organizations align their organizational structure, operations, and strategy with their values, I’ve come to understand that hierarchy is actually an essential component of an effective organization. I’ve also come to know that this stance is completely compatible with the awareness that the organizational hierarchies that pervade many nonprofit and for-profit organizations are deeply problematic both morally and tactically. The key is to understand hierarchy in a much more nuanced and complex way.
By hierarchy, I mean a system in which certain members or components of an organization defer to the authority of other members/components.
In the hierarchies that many of us antagonize, certain people are made to defer to others on all issues, deference is enforced via systems of reward and punishment, and those with authority are paid more. This results in some pretty troublesome realities. But these patterns and outcomes are not essential features of hierarchy itself, they are features that have accrued around hierarchy as it has been implemented in a certain cultural context by people with certain values, goals, and histories. Specifically, they are largely functions of the fact there is one hierarchy, and everyone’s relationship to each other (i.e. below or above) is static.
We want to change the dynamics we inherited, but we don’t need to throw away useful tools just because they have been used to build things that are now hurting us.
I want to redeem hierarchy. Not the bureaucratic coercive notion of hierarchy, but hierarchy as a process of deference that enables coordination, alignment, and unity. Hierarchy, or deference, is essentially the ability for one part of an organization to follow a decision, direction, or will of another part of the organization. It is an incredibly useful design feature when we wield it wisely.
My favorite place to witness beautiful, clear, interdependant hierarchy is in small jazz ensembles. Different parts of the group defer to each other about different things, and this deference creates the space for expression and co-creation. Everyone defers to the drums and bass for the sense of time, to the piano for harmonic progression, to the saxophone for melodic narrative, and to the song itself for the basic texture and structure. The deference persists even as they challenge and interweave with one another, and occasionally the whole thing will flip and suddenly the bass is carrying the melody. The fact the saxophone defers to the drums for time and the piano for harmony does not limit the saxophones autonomy, it creates the possibility for it.
It’s not that the ensemble has eliminated hierarchy. It’s that they have created a rich network of interlocking hierarchies that enables them to coordinate equitably and creatively.
We can bring the same principle into our organizations. We do not need to eliminate hierarchy and essentially say that no-one should defer to anyone else. Instead we say that we should defer to different people about different things at different times, we should be clear and transparent about how we are doing it, and the entire things should be consensual.
To get practical about this, we can work with four different types of formal hierarchies that exist in organizations. These different hierarchies are analogous to the jazz ensembles hierarchies regarding time, harmony, and melody. In our organizations there are four formal hierarchies. (1) Tactical, (2) Strategic, (3) Policy, and (4) Livelihood.
I say “formal hierarchies” to emphasize that these are arrangements that can be intentionally designed and tend to be officially and transparently adopted as part of organizational structure. I also mean to differentiate them from the numerous informal hierarchies based on things like, status, gender, access to information, expertise, race, class, etc. that influence how organizations function. There is also usually a cultural hierarchy that presents an archetype(s) of the “right” way to be in the world. Those informal hierarchies are essential to tend to, but they are beyond our scope here.
Before explaining these hierarchies and how to use them to create intentional organizations, I want to share the true story that provided the initial seed for this framework:
On the floor of a cooperatively owned and operated bakery, during the lunch rush, someone tipped over a cart full of muffins and batter. Suddenly the team needed to both come up with more muffins to fill the order that a customer was expecting to pick up imminently and clean up the mess all while they were already operating at full capacity. The shift lead quickly gathered the crew, assigned tasks, and instructed everyone to get to work. In that moment, a baker said they didn’t like his use of hierarchical power, questioned why he was the shift-lead to begin with, and noted some dynamics of race and gender at play.
It may sound a bit trivial, but this story reveals a lot about hierarchy. The baker’s concerns were real and valid. The organization was trying to work on those intersectional dynamics, that’s why I was involved to begin with. At the same time, if the whole team had paused to process that, maybe even if they had paused to try to mindfully make a collective decision about how to redistribute their labor, they would have fallen farther behind on their mission, disappointing muffin lovers everywhere.
The organization wanted to uphold equity, justice, and empowerment; and they wanted to get that floor clean and those muffins baked fast. One person tried to use hierarchy to coordinate the activity, another resisted hierarchy. The coordination was needed, the resistance revealed valid concerns. In a way the organization needed to both use hierarchy and critique hierarchy at the same time.
When we see formal hierarchy not as a monolithic thing to be dismantled, but rather a system that enables coordination across the four dimensions of tactics, strategy, policy, and livelihood, we access the precision and discernment needed to dismantle oppressive hierarchies while creating liberating hierarchies.
What follows is a description of these four forms of hierarchies, and some practical advice on how to use them intentionally in your organizations.
Tactical hierarchy is a system whereby some parties defer to another’s direction about who will complete which tasks in order to accomplish a shared and already defined goal.
This is the kind of hierarchy the shift-lead was trying to use during the muffin crises.
It’s primary benefits are clarity and quickness. It becomes clear who is doing what, and if it is not clear, it is at least clear who to ask to get clarity. This helps people understand what they need to do in order to get the job done. The fact that a single person can make the decisions enables the group to avoid all the time that would be spent negotiating or waiting for volunteers.
The potential pitfalls of tactical hierarchy include overwhelm, disempowering delegation, and sub-optimal decisions. The person who’s given the authority might end up with too many things to keep track of and become overwhelmed by what they have to manage. They might assign people to tasks that aren’t properly matched with their capacities and interests, and that might leave people unseen, without opportunities for growth, or even feeling demeaned. And all the decisions they make will not be fully informed by the wisdom of the group, which could result in unforeseen collateral consequences.
Strategic hierarchy is a system whereby some parties defer to another’s direction about the group’s shared mission and goals, the general initiatives that will be undertaken, and the specific intended outcomes of those initiatives.
This is the hierarchy that aligned everyone around the goal of selling muffins to customers. The goal was set by folks well before the muffins spilled, it was set by a group of people different than the bakers (though in this case some bakers participated in that strategic conversation, more on that later), and everyone at work deferred to the body that made the decision and agreed to pursue the goal.
The primary benefits of strategic hierarchy are direction, cohesion, and stability. Deference to a strategy enables the group to orient to shared goals and build structures and processes that enable them to organize themselves to accomplish the goals. The continued deference to that strategy enables folks to invest in their work without fear that priorities and activities will shift rapidly. Without a strategic hierarchy, half the bakers might start making cookies while the marketing team decided to pivot to pizza.
The potential pitfalls of strategic hierarchy are dis-investment of collaborators, sub-optimal strategy, and rigidity. If decisions about goals and priorities are made by people other than those who will actually be doing the work to achieve those goals, the worker might feel less personally invested in the work, less likely to bring their inspired creativity, and more likely to feel unappreciated and disconnected. Similarly, if the process of setting the strategy does not incorporate the right types of diversity and expertise (especially wisdom of frontline communities and expertise developed through lived experience), it can lead to activities that fail to maximize their impact or even cause harm by perpetuating oppressive dynamics. When strategy becomes inflexible whether because it is either too ingrained in the organization’s operations or the person/people at top of the strategy hierarchy are overly attached to their decisions, the organization can be locked into misaligned activities. This often happens when the feedback of people who are either charged with implementing strategy or directly impacted by decisions is not incorporated at the top of the strategic hierarchy.
Policy hierarchy is a system whereby some parties defer to another’s direction about the rules that apply to members of the organization and the processes for internal operations.
This was the hierarchy that established the position of the shift-lead, set the standards by which the shift lead was selected, and created the norms for how the shift lead would fill the role. In this circumstance,the organization’s policy was that the shift-lead be the focal point of a tactical hierarchy during the shift. It was set by a collective process led by a management team.
When the baker resisted the shift-lead, part of what they were resisting was the policy hierarchy. They were saying that they did not want to defer to the rules about how the workers would organize during the shift. They were also critiquing the way the shift lead inhabited his position in the tactical hierarchy.
The primary benefits of policy hierarchy include shared agreements, and transparent mechanisms for change, and clear places of appeal. If we want to have policies and rules about how we will work together, we need to all be on the same page about which rules we defer too. We might defer to the rules set by a single person, or a specific group, but if it’s not clear where authority lives, then people will all follow different rules and creating shared agreements will be really hard. When it is clear where authority lies, then it becomes easier to understand how to change policies or appeal issues that arises. Without that, members of the organization stumble in the darkness unsure of how to change broken systems, and rely exclusively on interpersonal skillfulness to resolve conflict.
The potential pitfalls of policy hierarchy are coercion, disempowerment, and inequity. If an exclusive group has the authority to set policies, they can intentionally or unintentionally establish policies that coerce people outside of that group and establish . The people who are made to follow policies they have little ability to influence can feel disempowered, and be unable to make changes that actually improve the whole system.
Livelihood hierarchy is a system whereby some parties defer to others about decisions that directly impact one’s ability to earn a livelihood now or in the future. This includes things like hiring/firing, compensation, promotion, and professional development opportunities. In some cases it is intimately related to tactical hierarchy because being able to take on new challenges and types of work helps people grow and command more compensation throughout their careers.
This was the hierarchy that decided the shift lead would be the specific person it was at that time. It also decided who was being paid what.
The primary benefit of livelihood hierarchy is clarity. Questions about livelihood issues generally need definite answers and to have a definite answer we need to know where authority to give that answer lives.
The potential pitfalls of livelihood hierarchy is self-service, inequity, and oppression. People atop these hierarchies can make decisions that benefit themselves (think about managers decided that managers should be paid more than program staff). Complex dynamics about who is seen, valued, and supported and how all of this relates to things like race, gender, and ability play inevitable roles in most decisions, and they can show up particularly saliently with respect to issues of livelihood.
The Primary Insight
All of these hierarchies are helpful; maybe even necessary to keep organizations functioning. The truly destructive thing is when these four hierarchies are collapsed into one. And that is the case in a lot of the organization models that we have inherited.
For example, someone might have a boss that sets the strategy, delegates the tasks, has the final word about organizational policy, and also determines what people are paid. This stagnant situation in which one person always has multiple forms of power over another, and the roles are never reversed sets us up for all kinds of problems.
As just a brief example: it becomes really hard for anyone to self-advocate or challenge the boss on anything. They may want to push back against a strategy decision, but they know they run the risk of then getting worse assignments and being denied promotions. This harms people emotionally, and makes it harder for the organization to harness the collective wisdom and leadership of all members.
But imagine if there was one person who had final say on pay, another on strategy, and another about task assignment. We would still have the clarity and alignment created by hierarchy, but we would be in an entirely different relational space. Everyone would be deferring to each other’s authority about different things. And the fact everyone both gives and recieves deference encourages them to learn how to hold their authority well. There is no one who is always in a position of power-over the others. The organization starts to work like a flock of geese, different people temporarily inhabiting the position atop various hierarchies, always knowing that their position is temporary and contextual.
Where Does Authority Live?
There are four locations where hierarchical authority can reside: person, role, team, or whole.
When it resides in a person it means that the group defers to a specific individual. For example, “Jose sets the strategy.” This type of authority is actually fairly rare. It usually shows up with founders or people with long tenure at organizations, particularly when those organizations do not have clear structure.
Authority more often resides in roles. For example “The executive director sets the strategy.” There is a particular role in the structure, and whoever is in that role has the authority. In some organizational models we think of each person as having only one role and a person really only leaves their role if they lose their job or are promoted. But that doesn’t need to be the case.
In our bakery example, that shift lead was in the role of shift lead a few times a week, sometimes he was in the role of baker, and sometimes he was in the role of supplies purchaser. So even though he was temporarily a top a tactical hierarchy, the next day he might be in a role where he is following the authority of another shift lead, and the next day he might be executing tasks assigned by someone else entirely. Playing with roles creates space for lots of different dynamics, all while preserving the useful elements of the hierarchy.
We can also locate authority in teams. For example “The strategic planning team sets the strategy.” This opens up even more possibilities because we can be intentional about who is on the team and how the team makes decisions. So we can create a system where five people with different identities, from different locations in the organizations, design and implement a collective process to create a strategy that the whole group then defers to. There’s tons of participation and tons of opportunity to build intentional relationships, but there is still a hierarchy because everyone has agreed to defer to the authority of that team on that matter.
When we locate authority in the whole, we are saying that we will only defer to a decision if it obtains the consensus of the entire group. Even when we do this we are still employing a hierarchy because we are locating authority in a specific place and allowing it to inform everything else. That’s an important point, even whole group consensus creates hierarchy because it calls upon individuals to defer to a decision making body outside themselves.
Hierarchy is about deference and power. Power needs to be somewhere, and we need to defer to something. If each person defers only to their own personal sense in the moment, with no reference to prior agreements, intentions, and directions, it becomes incredibly difficult to coordinate. The clearer who/what we are all listening to and deferring to the better we can coordinate. The more we are transparent about deference, the more we can ground it in consent. The more we avoid it the more we open up the possibility for unconscious and potentially harmful dynamics of power and enforced deference.
Your organization has these four hierarchies. Chances are it will always have these four hierarchies; and if you try really hard to dissolve them completely you will likely end up with a convoluted soup that accomplishes very little.
As you think about how your particular organization wants to work, think about how you want to employ tactical, strategy, policy, and livelihood hierarchies. When is it best to have a person be the point of authority? When is it best for it to be a role, a team, or a group? If you put an individual atop a hierarchy, would you prefer them to be there for a long time or rotate often? Does your answer change depending on which type of hierarchy it is? How can you make space for everyone to be at the top of some hierarchy in the organization and for everyone to sometimes not be?
Hierarchy isn’t the enemy. Hierarchy is a really useful tool. We can use it to build clear communication, alignment, power sharing, mutual accountability, and personal growth. Or we could use it to create coercion, extraction, and dehumanization. It can really go either way. But what I’ve really noticed in my time co-creating liberating organizations, is that an allergy to hierarchy or a rejection of hierarchy in principle serves no-one. It actually gets us overly fixated on a particular type of “equality” that prevents clear thinking about how we want to organize ourselves.
Let’s dismantle The Hierarchy, and replace it with many hierarchies. We all will lead. We all will follow. We all will transition in and out of these roles fluidly, forming an organic an ever-evolving system.
We will play jazz. In rhythm together; embracing the harmonies even as we challenge them. Taking turns with our solos; each building on another as we discover the new riches of co-creation; and if we do it right, we won’t be able to help but dance. Which couldn’t be more important because “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” -Emma Goldman