Why People Love Old-School, Hierarchical Organizations

If being democratic in your leadership style is the rational way to create a successful organization, then why isn’t it the norm? Instead, why are democratic, transparent organizations the exception? There must be a reason why people and companies prefer to stick with industrial-era practices and working styles and it’s important to explore those reasons when you want to advocate change. For, how can you show them they need to change if you don’t understand their reasons for not changing?

Professional Drive Is Subjective

Among the things that drive people at workplaces, status and wealth-building are particularly potent. I realized this when I was on the brink of a career change and I began analyzing what was most important to me in a job. As it turned out, I valued personal growth and freedom at work - but I also understood that growth in professional stature and wealth-building might be what drives somebody else. So, if you’re someone who dreams of having your business card read ‘Manager’ or ‘Director’ or, ‘Senior Executive’, then you’re someone who is also prepared to deal with what it takes to climb the proverbial corporate ladder.

And, the truth is, it’s a more common mindset to have. But, none of this is to say that democratic organizations don’t have statuses, although it’s a common misconception that they are egalitarian by default. But, in reality, these organizations (including Semco Style organizations) do have differences in status - whether formal or informal. The question is, does everybody in the organization have a voice? And, does everyone feel like they can take responsibility for their actions instead of being accusers or victims?

Vertical Growth Versus Lateral Growth

Going back to the advantages that people see in traditional, hierarchical organizations, becoming a specialist at something is a big one. Command-and-control, large-size organizations are generally made up by multiple layers and divisions and they often involve complex processes that need specialization. If you’re someone who places a lot of importance on being a specialist at what you do, then such a setup will seem perfect to you. People can better specialize within clearly defined smaller roles and departments. And, if all the processes are standardized, then your role becomes even smaller, making it conducive to individual growth. So, instead of doing a bit of everything and pursuing lateral growth, you can delve deeper into a specific role.

Stability Beats Unpredictability

The world is full of people who love stability and one of the things that creates a semblance of it at work is the presence of rules and policies on everything that matters. Playing it by ear and changing strategies on the fly aren’t for everyone - however following the rulebook and coloring within the boundaries is what most people are comfortable with. If that’s you, then a traditional organization with its ample rulebook will offer a sense of stability and predictability in your work life, which may actually help you do your job better. The presence of all these conventional practices also makes way for more internal work because such companies need people working on creating and updating the rules, besides disseminating it to the employees and making sure everybody toes the line.

Whose Job Is It Anyway?

Large, conventional organizations are like vicious circles that make it impossible for someone to be held solely responsible for something, while at the same time making it easier for employees to absolve themselves of any responsibility. To put it simply, nobody’s really responsible for anything because they’re just small parts of a complex machine. That makes it simpler for an employee to throw up their hands and say, “Well, there’s just so much I can do.” At conventional and complex organizations, employees can get away with doing just the bare minimum for a very long time, with everything going well, until it’s time to downsize.

Improve What’s Already There

Another important reason why leaders and employees at traditional organizations prefer to keep things the way are is the availability of a large library of resources, recorded from every project. Conventional managements place a lot of value on creating and maintaining records of all work done. These reports and records can be of great use as learning material which can reveal what areas need improvement. In smaller, start-up kind of organizations, there isn’t much emphasis on maintaining written records of everything, which makes it harder for new recruits to learn what’s already been done or for existing employees to refine processes.

More Like A Millennial Fad

And finally, there’s no denying that much of the workforce at traditional and large-size organizations belongs to previous generations. Or, in other words, they aren’t Millennials who are open to things like democracy and transparency at work and in leadership. These are people who grew up on the systems fostered by the industrial revolution and to them it works just fine. So, why would they want to change how their work works?

While these perceived advantages are in no way exhaustive, they definitely give a glimpse into what’s at stake for large companies where hierarchies thrive. It’s a system that’s ingrained within their psyche and they are bound to find it difficult to embrace something that challenges it.


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