Workplace Realism: The Myth of Flattened Hierarchy

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/23/2014 02:00:00 AM
Actually, we're not quite there yet.
The management literature is littered with references to new forms of organizational structures alike matrixes, networks and so on that are coming to replace bureaucratic hierarchies. This phenomenon is linked to modern, politically correct notions of diversity, equity and fairness. Surely, we can't have [white, male] bosses lording it over others in an enlightened age, can we? Having been conditioned to think organizations are evolving in this, well, collegial direction at university, young entrants to the workforce are often surprised that most instead resemble your grandfather's corporate hierarchy straight out of Weber's iron cage.

CFO magazine points us in the direction of recent research by management stalwart Jeffrey Pfeffer reprising themes those familiar with his work should be able to recognize. Because power games are inherent in human societies, the notion that they will go away in "new age" organizations is risible. In a world where people strive to get ahead, it is inevitable that this will be done at others' expense. Call it "workplace realism"; people are keeping score. So, the corporate hierarchy becomes reinforced the embodiment of this perpetual conflict--be it cavemen or white collar workers. There's this person called the boss, gaffer, guv'nor and that's that--none of this touchy-feely stuff beloved by slackers:
“There’s this belief that we are all living in some postmodernist, egalitarian, merit-based paradise and that everything is different in companies now,” [Pfeffer] says. “But in reality, it’s not.” In fact, in a new paper that explores the notion that power structures haven’t changed much over time, Pfeffer explains that the way organizations operate today actually reflects hundreds of years of hierarchical power structures, and remains unchanged because these structures “can be linked to survival advantages” in the workplace. The beliefs and behaviors that go along with them, he writes, are ingrained in our collective, corporate DNA.

Why do traditional power structures have such staying power? One reason is that hierarchies still work. Pfeffer writes that “relationships with bosses still matter for people’s job tenure and opportunities, as do networking skills.” He notes that research shows hierarchies also deliver practical and psychological value, in part by fulfilling deep-seated needs for order and security. Another is that individuals who believe in their own competence and above-average qualities are more likely to take action at work, says Pfeffer. Taking action on the job provides opportunities for success, and success means advancement at the company — including more power and control over others — perpetuating a hierarchical structure.
There is no self-fulfilling prophecy that believing we are in an era of flat organizations will eventually result in having more of them:
Changes in the values and careers of particularly younger employees and changes in organizations, including the reduction of hierarchical levels and greater use of teams and matrix structures—combined with new communication technologies and more social networking—have produced calls for new organization theories for these new realities. Using organizational power and influence as a focus, I argue that fundamental theoretical processes remain largely unchanged in their explanatory power, in part because such phenomena can be linked to survival advantages. The new workers–new work arguments are consistent with the continuing emphasis on novelty and theoretical innovation in the organization sciences, an emphasis that, while promulgated in virtually all the journals, may poorly serve the development of reliable and valid knowledge and hinder our ability to provide useful advice for both organizations and their employees. 
Deal with it: the real world is not like that. Pfeffer's setting may be different--the corporate world instead of international relations--but exactly the same forces undergirding realism reappear. Power matters. The implications are far-reaching in that perhaps it's time to go back to "stodgy" old management research in which organizations resemble military-like command structures instead of these pancake-flat doodles people imagine them to be. More importantly, young people may not be persevering in work environments that do not meet their expectations. Ditto for government organizations (or even more so).