In praise of hierarchy

Harv Bus Rev. 1990 Jan-Feb;68(1):127-33.


Hierarchy has not had its day. After 3,000 years as the preferred structure for large organizations, managerial hierarchy is still the most natural and effective organizational form that a big company can employ. Now, as in the past, the key to organizational success is individual accountability, and hierarchy preserves unambiguous accountability for getting work done. Unfortunately, hierarchy is widely misunderstood and abused. Pay grades are confused with real layers of responsibility, for example, and incompetent bosses abound. As a result, many experts now urge us to adopt group-oriented or "flat" structures. But groups are never held accountable as groups for what they do or fail to do, and groups don't have careers. The proper use of hierarchy derives from the nature of work. As organizational tasks range from simple to very complex, there are sharp jumps in the level of difficulty and responsibility. Surprisingly, people in hundreds of companies in dozens of countries agree on where these jumps take place. They are tied to an objective measure-the time span of the longest task or program assigned to each managerial role-and they occur at 3 months, 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years. As the time span increases, so does the level of experience, knowledge, and mental stamina required to do the work. This increasing level of mental capacity lets companies put people in jobs they can do, it allows managers to add value to the work of their subordinates, it creates hierarchical layers acceptable to everyone in the organization, and it allows employees to be evaluated by people they accept as organizational superiors. Best of all, understanding hierarchy allows organizations to set up hierarchies with no more than seven layers-often fewer-and to know what the structure is good for and how it ought to perform.

MeSH terms

  • Administrative Personnel*
  • Employment / psychology*
  • Group Processes
  • Hierarchy, Social*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Personnel Management*
  • Planning Techniques
  • Social Dominance*