The energy behind hierarchy

Arlin Pauler

Arlin’s passion is helping people and organizations thrive.   Grey hair and happy smile bear witness to a long and fulfilling career, enriched by continuous learning.  From landscaping to research, manufacturing to advertising, construction to distribution, his focus has always been on making better use of the passion, creativity, and knowledge within people. 

AP: I believe that due to the social impact of business culture, finding the answer to the question you pose is part of a larger social transformation. And finding it is inevitable. I also think that part of the answer lies in harnessing the energy behind hierarchies for organizational transformation to be sustainable.

DM: Thank you, Arlin. I wonder if you could say more about “harnessing the energy behind hierarchies”. I’m interested. There must be a lot of energy behind hierarchies that has them constantly reasserting themselves. What is the nature of that energy? Fear of uncertainty? Need to feel in control? Or am I on the wrong track?

AP: You are definitely on the right track, particularly with recognizing that “there must be a lot of energy behind hierarchies”. This is the energy I believe can be harnessed for sustainable change.

Human beings seem to have a deep psychological need to belong and also to stand out. Belonging to an organizational framework or hierarchical structure that provides enough predictability without sacrificing actualization of one’s uniqueness as an individual, can bring a lot of psychological, or spiritual, energy into play. This energy, or need, seems to be a kind of glue that holds the cultural norms of the organization in place.

This is both good and bad news. On the one hand without cohesion and compliance to established cultural norms, every day at work would be like the first day of business. It would be chaotic and unproductive. On the other hand, this energy can obstruct the improvement of cultural norms. In organization development we have to know how to harness the energy in the attachment to cultural norms and work with it rather than against it to bring about change. I believe failure to harness this energy is a primary cause of change implementation failure.

So far my experience has been that the key to harnessing this energy begins with recognition that all organizational change takes place at the level of individual people making individual choices.  (Individual autonomy unavoidable.) From this platform, when individual people recognize what’s in it for them to go through the rigors of change, they are more engaged and enthusiastic about doing their part because it’s for them not just for the organization. Included in these conversations is having the client feel secure about their need to fit in and stand out. 

DM: You make me think with your comments about humans needing both to belong and to stand out: something of a paradox. And I like your reference to the energy in that need and the idea of harnessing it, of working with the energy rather than against it.

I’m not sure how to start on that or whether I associate it with hierarchy though.  The trouble with hierarchy, the higher the person, the more their influence and the less their contact with the outside. I must pay more attention to my boss than to my staff – and so must my boss. So bright ideas from the shop floor often struggle to be heard.

The theme emerging from my inquiry so far is ‘time’, which you allude to here. It takes a big investment in time to build the trusting relationships that are needed for a real team. The return is huge because the cost of time is small compared with the cost of correcting errors and delaying projects. But the link between the investment and the return is hard to see. When we need to take the time, we somehow can’t remember how much better a team performs than a hierarchy. 

AP: As to the relevance of hierarchies, I think hierarchies are created by our need to belong to a structure that provides some predictability. However, some hierarchies are dysfunctional, which is where your reference to teams comes into play.

I believe that the camaraderie of team spirit can be incorporated into hierarchies. This would be part of the answer to how do we harness the energy in hierarchies for sustainable change?

Enjoying a dinner cruise with family on the Mississippi River

DM: I think hierarchies are created by the need for authorities to feel they are in control. I also think they are inherently dysfunctional because organisations are too complex to be controlled effectively by people far removed from the important action.  

You do have me thinking, though, with this idea of harnessing the energy in hierarchies.  Clearly, there is no future in my clamouring for their elimination!

AP: To add a bit to what I see as to the role of teams, it is a kind of ‘We’re All in This Together’ attitude that can make hierarchies functional.  This creates a horizontal plane of equality within a vertical chain of command and responsibility.  I think hierarchies are basically functional or dysfunctional as a result of the value system that drives them.  If the energy behind the hierarchy is Love rather than fear, it tends to nurture the Human Spirit and support success for people and business.

DM: I’m always thrilled to meet another idealist, Arlin!  Would that hierarchies were more often fuelled by Love rather than fear!  I do hold the faith that the Human Spirit leads us in the right direction but I fear that hierarchies don’t provide an environment where it flourishes naturally.  I saw a quote from Jimmy Carter once, something like, “I believe you can always get people in conflict to do the right thing provided you can get them into the same room and stay with them for long enough.”  

Time is the challenge.  It takes time to form a team and organisations tend to be driven by short term pressures and blind to the long-term cost.

AP: I feel we haven’t really answered the question of how do we harness the energy in hierarchies to achieve sustainable change. Perhaps I am missing what you see. Could you give me your thoughts on this? I think there is real opportunity for you and I, perhaps with others in your group, to create informative and useful content with the kind of collaborative writing we are doing here. I hope we’ll have an opportunity to do more of it.

DM: Thank you, Arlin.  Your responses are always very encouraging.  

My attention is turning from extending the conversations I have been collecting to trying to converge everything into the final edition.  I have realised, nothing will ever be finished … and I think that’s OK.  That’s how it is with conversations, after all.  Long may they continue

I am more interested in where ideas collide and overlap than in carefully developed arguments.  


You can contact Arlin through his blog: The Art of Love is Good Business

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