Is your hierarchy a ladder or pyramid?
A hierarchy’s perceived shape determines the quality of employee relationships and performance in groups
One of the defining characteristics of almost every corporate organization is the existence of a hierarchy. For all the discussions about “flat” organizations since the idea first appeared in 1950, the reality is that most companies operate with some sort of hierarchical structure. Depending on the company, the hierarchy may be a positive structure that allows the company to fulfill its mission or it may be a negative structure that enables bureaucracy and disables innovation.
Given the impact that hierarchies have on company performance, this topic has received extensive study and analysis from researchers, consultants and executives. Generally speaking, that body of work has looked at the operational mechanics and implications of specific hierarchical forms. The emphasis has mostly been on understanding how specific hierarchic structures impact workers and companies for better or worse. A paper from Siyu Yu (Rice), Lindred L. Greer (Michigan), Nir Halevy (Stanford), and Lisanne van Bunderen (Amsterdam) adds to this extensive body of work with a novel analysis of a topic previously ignored: the impact that hierarchy visualization has on its members. The critical question: does a hierarchy’s perceived “shape” affect employee behavior and overall organizational performance?
For their study, the authors focused primarily on two hierarchy shapes: ladders and pyramids. The authors note that individuals commonly use ladder shapes to “mentally represent hierarchical distributions that come with (a) salient vertical categorical distinctions between members in different ranks, (b) a narrow base and a relatively equally narrow top, and (c) in its most extreme form, a group structure in which each group member occupies a distinct rank in the hierarchy.” In contrast, individuals commonly use pyramid shapes “to mentally represent hierarchical distributions in which (a) few group members control most of the group’s resources, (b) the lower ranks form a wider base and the higher ranks form a narrower top, and (c) in its extreme form, a group structure in which a single individual occupies the highest and all the other group members occupy the lowest rank in the hierarchy.”
These two shapes are important because they illustrate important features of hierarchies gleaned from past research: stratification and centralization. A ladder represents a hierarchy that is most effective when each member of the group has a distinct rank relative to other members. A pyramid represents a hierarchy whose maximum value is reached when one member has the highest rank and most other members share a lower position. The shapes are also important because of a concept known as the “principle of construal,” which stipulates that people’s interpretation of the circumstances around them has a direct and material impact on how they think and behave. In other words, we adjust our thoughts and actions to fit the world around us as we imagine it; therefore, how we imagine our organization’s hierarchy works affects how we think and act inside of it.
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