Egalitarian or hierarchical workplace environment?

While a clear chain of command is preferred by many, some companies have achieved success through egalitarian systems as well.

Do individuals prefer to have bosses or be on equal footing with everyone they work with? The answer might surprise you. A new study suggests that in the working world, a hierarchical system is more widely accepted, and not just by those in top-level positions.

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, recently conducted a series of five experiments to see whether individuals responded more positively to a hierarchical or egalitarian structure.

Among other things, the experiments asked participants to do the following.

•  Memorize and recreate charts depicting both types of structures, as well as graphics depicting different types of relationships between employees
•  Examine sample employee and company profiles and rate appeal and prospects for the future

In each experiment, subjects had more positive responses to systems based on hierarchy where there was a clear chain of command. Conversely, the egalitarian systems were often described as "confusing" or "messy."

Tiedens and Zitek say that this does not mean the latter model cannot be successful. But, they might involve a little extra work.

"People often think equality is a natural state that doesn’t have to be managed, but it does," Tiedens says. "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."

In fact, earlier this year Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed Gabe Newell, CEO of successful video game designer Valve Software. Newell discussed how Valve uses this system, where even new employees could assign him a task to complete.

Online learning management systems can help to clearly define an organizational pyramid and the responsibilities of employees at each level in a hierarchy. In egalitarian scenarios, online training solutions can outline the different roles in the company, so that when employees move from one project to the next and their role changes, they have an understanding of what they should be doing without needing a direct supervisor to instruct them.


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