Leadership & Management

Building Organizations That Work

New research shows we sometimes prefer hierarchical relationships over equal ones.

August 01, 2012

| by Susan Greenberg



Graduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. 2013 | Reuters/Mike Segar

It’s hard to find fault with the concept of equality. America’s founding fathers considered it such a universally desirable ideal that they built their fledgling democracy upon it. To this day, no one in his right mind would ever claim to prefer a stratified social structure to an egalitarian one.

Yet, in practice, people sometimes actually favor hierarchical relationships over equal ones, according to a recent study by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Larissa Z. Tiedens and Emily M. Zitek, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. That’s because hierarchical relationships are easier for people to grasp and manage, making them feel more successful. “Why do people create hierarchies when they say they don’t want them? One answer is that it makes thinking much easier,” says Tiedens, the Jonathan B. Lovelace Professor of Organizational Behavior and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. “We produce hierarchies to make our lives easier cognitively. And the fact that they’re so much easier to think about and understand makes us like them more.”

The study, which recently appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, consists of five separate experiments designed to provide insight into the prevalence and usefulness of hierarchies in social relationships. The larger goal, says Tiedens, is to help organizations be more mindful about how they structure themselves. With successful, high-profile companies such as Google moving away from a clearly defined pecking order, the prevailing wisdom has become “hierarchy is bad, equality is good,” she says. “But there are things that are good about hierarchy, and things that are good about equality. When you’re creating an organization it’s important to think about what structure will serve your goals best.”


In the first experiment, Tiedens and Zitek aimed to show that hierarchical relationships are easier for people to process than equal ones. Building on previous experiments demonstrating that facial features are a barometer of current and future hierarchical position, they showed 104 subjects 4 sets of paired photos of cadets taken from a 1950 West Point yearbook. All signs of military rank had been removed. One set of photos showed faces who independent evaluators had previously rated as equally submissive; one set showed those deemed equally dominant; one set paired a dominant face with a submissive one; and one showed an animal face and a human face. As the pairs popped up on a computer screen, participants struck the “H” key as soon as they recognized the two faces as human, and the “A” key if they determined one was an animal.

The results indicated that subjects consistently responded more quickly to the pair of photos consisting of a “dominant” face and a “submissive” face — what they termed the “hierarchy condition” — than to any other pair. They concluded that because people process pictures of hierarchies faster than pictures of equalities, hierarchies are easier for people to perceive.

The second experiment sought to prove that people have an easier time remembering hierarchical relationships than equal ones, and therefore like them better. Subjects were shown three diagrams, each containing seven men’s names. The first demonstrated a clear power structure, with one name at the top, two directly beneath him, and two more below each of them. The second showed the seven names linked in a circle, with no apparent hierarchy, and the third showed them “chunked” into random groups but without a clear top-down structure. The subjects looked at one chart for seven seconds, and were then asked to reproduce it from memory. If they got it right, they were done with the experiment; if not, they viewed it again for seven seconds, for as many tries as it took to memorize it accurately. As expected, the subjects learned the hierarchy diagram in fewer tries than either of the other two. They also reported that they “liked” the hierarchy chart more than the equality chart. The researchers also demonstrated that there was a negative correlation between remembering and liking; that is, people didn’t like what they couldn’t easily remember.

In the third experiment, the researchers compared hierarchy to equality in both power relationships and friendships. They asked participants to memorize a series of connections among four men, described by the verb clauses “gives orders to,” “takes orders from,” “is friendly to,” and “is unfriendly to.” Tiedens and Zitek predicted, accurately, that the subjects would more quickly memorize the connections depicting “asymmetric” — or hierarchical — order-giving than those indicating a symmetric power relationship. They also correctly predicted that subjects would have an easier time remembering “symmetric” over asymmetric friendliness, because equality in friendship is expected and familiar, and that the hierarchical power relationships would be learned fastest, even faster than the egalitarian friend relationships. Additionally, the subjects again liked best what they learned the fastest, meaning that they preferred hierarchy to equality.

“The symmetric-orders condition, where people could give orders to the same people who gave them orders, was extremely hard for people to learn,” the study concluded. “This is interesting because sometimes organizations try to create equality by producing more symmetry; that is, by empowering people to give orders to one another and to take orders from one another. Yet, this kind of structure was confusing to our participants, and some even complained that these relationships did not make sense.”

Experiment four aimed to determine whether the degree of hierarchy within an organization would influence an outside observer’s opinion of it. Using their home computers, subjects were asked to read materials and provide recommendations for a fictitious company, whose goals included “downsize by 10 percent,” “phase out the Atlanta office,” and “increase the number of women in senior positions.” The materials contained spreadsheets of employees’ names, genders, ages, and performance ratings, as well as organizational charts showing their locations and positions.

That’s where the researchers manipulated the variable: some of the charts demonstrated little or no hierarchy, with a maximum of three levels per department, while others revealed a much more stratified structure, with highly differentiated job titles. After studying the charts for 30 minutes, subjects made recommendations, guided by specific questions such as whom they should fire, whom they should promote, and who should retire early. Then they were asked to rank, on a scale of 1 to 7, how easy they found the task, and how well they thought the company was functioning. As expected, those who examined the company with the more pronounced hierarchy not only found the task easier to complete but also expressed a much more positive view of the firm and its employees.

In the final experiment, the researchers sought to determine whether the gender of the individuals in a hierarchy impacts the ease with which people process it. Students in this study were asked to memorize one of four diagrams: two contained the faces of the same seven men and two of the same seven women, but in each pair one was arranged in a traditional 1-2-4 hierarchy, with the single person at the top, and the other was flipped, with the single person on the bottom. Whether they were male or female, the subjects required fewer tries to memorize the male top-down formation than any of the other three, indicating that male hierarchies are more familiar and expected than other types of social structures. As with the other experiments, the subjects were more likely to express a preference for the structure they learned the quickest.

The study, “The Fluency of Social Hierarchy: The Ease With Which Hierarchical Relationships Are Seen, Remembered, Learned, and Liked,” concludes that hierarchies are easier for people to grasp than egalitarian relationships because their asymmetries create “end points” that facilitate memorization; they are predictable; and they are familiar, beginning with our very first social interaction — the parent-child relationship. “Equality can be messy, and hierarchy is conceptually cleaner,” says Tiedens.

That doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea of equality in favor of a rigid chain of command; it just means that organizations keen on eliminating or minimizing hierarchy, as seems to be the trend, should be prepared to replace it with something else. “Just getting rid of the organizational chart can create problems,” she says. “People often think equality is a natural state that doesn’t have to be managed, but it does. It’s harder for people to understand and learn an egalitarian structure. So you need more clarity in other structural variables, like really clear job titles, for instance.” Such titles need not delineate a pecking order; instead of names like “manager,” “director,” or “associate,” companies could just make the titles extremely specific, such as “writer in charge of advertising copy” or “coordinator of sustainability activities.”

Tiedens believes the most successful organizations are those that achieve a balance between hierarchy and equality. “A lot of it has to do with the way in which the hierarchy or equality is enacted,” she says. “People need a way of organizing information, including information about relationships among people. You need a way to enhance people’s ability to understand what the organization is and how individuals operate within it.” Next up, Tiedens plans to investigate whether changing leadership across domains — so one person might manage one project, and someone else another — will maximize the benefits of blending equality and hierarchy. “It might be the best of both worlds,” she says.

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