Agile Directing - Johda ketterästi

Hierachies and power

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Saturday 12/20/14 time 12:22 PM


After a longer writing pause I finally decided to stretch time and write few words about organizational hierarchies as I promised earlier. Discussions in research are on-going and at least in critical management studies the benefit of hierarchical strategic management is questioned quite strongly. I have collected some examples about the benefits and disadvantages discussed in various studies.

Benefits of hierarchical control and power 

  • To get decisions made – Today it is more and more important to make fast decisions. Basically, it might appear as it would be a great idea to involve several persons in decision making process.  It is, however, quite idealistic thought. I have written about biases of decision making in my posting Shift the focus from decision making towards implementation.
  • To get things implemented - One way of getting things to happen is through hierarchical authority. Those at higher levels have the power to hire and fire, to measure and reward behaviour, and to provide direction to those who are under their aegis. All employees cannot possibly possess the overall picture. Therefore, someone has to be responsible for managing the big view. Participative management with a strong shared vision and organizational culture takes time and effort. Problems arise because new ideas which are inconsistent with that particular culture cannot penetrate. Things are often left out.
  • We need to be controlled in some degree - The organisation can become very ineffective without any authority.  For example, we do not always prioritise correctly because we prefer to do things we like and not the things which are the most important at that moment.
  • Easier to curb disruptive behaviour -  With the pressure to create shared vision and apply participative management, managers are often afraid of using employer’s right to supervise work even in situations it would be necessary, i.e., in bullying cases or cases of underperformance.
  • Situational managerial needs - In a crisis situation, for example, the hierarchical authority is particularly important.  When you do not have time to consult everyone, or only you have the relevant information.

Hierarchies as impediments for strategic performance

  • Understating the role of resistance – The most evident problem with hierarchical thinking is the fact that it overstates the ability of managers to control others whilst understating the role of resistance.
  • Relying on the one and the only person - What if the guy on top of the hierarchical pyramid is wrong? The one whose orders are being followed.
  • Abuse of power – Corruption, good old boys club, bossing, oppression and other kind of unethical managerial behaviour is more easily enabled in authoritarian and hierarchical organization.
  • Information block – The direct connection to managers in lower levels is easily missing in hieararchical organisation.  The traditional rational strategy doctrine is that management is responsible of the content and then the strategy will be implemented from one hierarchical level to another. However, the planning and implementation should not be separated from each other, not in time and by hierarchies. Hence, to get important unfiltered information is significantly more difficult with hierarchies.
  • The power of dominant interests - Resisting consensus is more difficult in hierarchical organization; certain important discussion topics are often totally left out in conversations, or certain facts are denied by dominant parties.

So far, it cannot be deduced that hierarchies would be totally useless or detrimental. But how to utilise hierarchies when they are needed and eliminate the negative consequences? To unlearn from current harmful management practices, however, is necessary. On the other hand, it is surely very difficult for managers to start behaving another way. One reason might be that contemporary management is afraid of losing their power bases and positions.

Yet, the most important thing is to understand that the formal authority is not the only source of power.  In strategic literature there has been defined several other sources like knowledge or skills, control of strategic resources, nature of one’s job etc. Moreover, it should not to be overlooked that resistance, in fact, is an act of power as well.  

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As a relaxing (?) final lightening I give a very useful example of a remarkable power source;  VooDoo! You do not need any hierarchies and you do not need to care about them - at all.

A very long time ago (really) I practiced often Voo Doo to my boyfriend or spouse when any other way did not work (you know the common means; negotiation, seduction, black male etc. ).  I had a white rabbit and I put the needles into it. It definitely worked every time. Even my friends were amazed about my watertight success. Much later on, one of my friends visited Sweden and brought me a Voo Doo doll because in her opinion my rabbit was quite pathetic. I was cleaning my storage one day as I found it.

As you can see, I have not opened the package meaning I have not used it! At first, I thought “great, I have finally grown up,  I do not need it anymore!” But when I read what is written on the doll I realized that the real reason to put it to storage was, however, that the Voo Doo doll was meant to be used to ex-spouses. No, no, it would be so silly.. and the greatest waste of energy.  What is past is past. Of course, one can always ask because it is, indeed, a Swedish doll, what does this tell about Swedish people…? :-D

Let’s put something very Finnish in the end, one of my outmost favourite groups - with great words ;-)

Keywords: Power, resistance, strategic management, hierarchies,


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