You might expect capitalism-centric media would react negatively to the recent buzz around Valve Software‘s innovative non-hierarchical structure. I was actually a little surprised about how un-reactionary the broad response was. The problem for industry media is, it’s really hard to defend hierarchy with actual research. Most behavioral economics research has uncovered big holes in the conventional workplace structure, which is of course maintained in order to foster and perpetuate class divisions, keeping a tiny owner class, a minority coordinator class, and the largest possible share remaining as fundamentally disempowered, disenfranchised worker bees.
I was actually wondering where the reaction to Valve’s novelty revelation of its innovative structure and policies was hiding. So much industry reportage had just treated it as a lark to note and move past. (Probably the wiser strategy.)
Then I saw Inc. magazine’s apologetics piece purportedly defending the virtues of hierarchy. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of contortions would be needed to try to undermine what is becoming more and more obvious: that workers thrive under conditions of empowerment, and that class divisions and disparities of wealth and income are causes of anxiety and dissatisfaction.
But I thought the establishment press would be able to come up with something a little better than this, at least.
Titled “Your employees like hierarchy (no, really)”, the short Inc. piece squirms for a minute then ends up praising Valve. The title addresses you as if the author knows who the fuck you and your employees are. It assumes they’re just like the subjects of a laughably conducted study that proves conclusively that people prefer the way a hierarchy looks on paper. Of course, the study purports to show that people appreciate being in a pecking order. But in fact, it does nothing of the sort.
Let’s not pick on the poor journalism in the Inc. article. The study’s own press release is shoddy enough.
The researchers apparently did not actually test whether their subects would like to work in a hierarchy. Not only did the study fail to examine actual workplaces of various structures and compare them, it didn’t even put the subjects in the hypothetical perspective of employees.
In one of the five experiments used in the study, researchers had subjects react to pairs of photographs of people’s faces that had been independently analyzed for dominant vs. submissive features.
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.
Taking the results at face value (pun intended), what’s the point? I honestly don’t know. Ease of perception is supposed to correlate to preference, let alone actual validation? Nice try.
The second experiment sought to prove that people have an easier time remembering hierarchical relationships than equal ones, and therefore like them better.
To be fair, judging from the abstract, the researchers apparently surveyed the participants on their preference; they didn’t just infer it from ease of memorability of a seating chart (sometimes PR teams get a little carried away in relaying findings). But still, who cares if it takes someone slightly longer to learn the structure of a collective vs. a hierarchy? Has ease of memorability been independently correlated with long term appreciation? Is it even conceivable that you would list “how long it takes to learn the workplace structure” among your top 100 factors in choosing an employer, given you’ll likely spend years there after the few days or maybe weeks it takes to figure out who’s who?
The third experiment involved testing whether subjects more quickly memorized relationships of power hierarchy (boss/worker) over differentials in friendliness. Again, how could we possibly extrapolate a livelihood preference from such an exercise?
“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.”
They weren’t dealing with real people! Not even real fellow subjects, just fictitious people on paper. Of course it would be confusing. This experiment is not in the slightest way an analysis of how people behave in the real world, with real human beings.
I work every day in two flat workplaces. In both cases, team members regularly assign each other tasks. We use a project management system that’s configured to give everyone the power to do so. Sometimes we reassign tasks or even assign them back to the person that gave them to us, indicating we don’t have the capacity or we’re not the best specialist to do it. It’s not confusing. It’s empowering!
The fourth experiment was much more interesting and conceivably relevant.
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.
Next step: the participant got to do some firing! But all this experiment examined (by its own admission), is how outsiders would handle the challenge. And from what I’m able to see (I don’t have the actual model), it’s not clear that there was any attempt to actually familiarize the subjects with the way the organization worked. That said, the experiment does demonstrate the obvious: that someone from outside an organization will have a harder time analyzing a collective than a traditional hierarchy. So don’t bring in an outside firm to downsize your egalitarian workplace.
It’s also worth noting that in Experiment 4, the participants “expressed a much more positive view of the [hierarchical] firm and its employees”. This could have bearing on all sorts of matters, including prospective customer/client or partner or investor relationships for a company that eschews old-fashioned organizing in favor of a progress-aware approach.
Furthermore, it’s interesting that the charts used in Experiment 4 varied in two ways: stratification and job titles. There’s nothing about less-hierarchical workplaces that would suggest job titles can’t be significantly varied. It’s just bad methodology to change two variables when testing for one factor.
In the end, to a progressively minded person, these findings simply suggest there needs to be a shift in social attitudes towards organizations, away from judging how they’re structured, toward judging how and if they work. Indeed, if the study didn’t include outcome differentials, it’s that much more worthless. I suspect that testing four objects instead of two would have had revealing results. That is:
- a successful collective
- a successful hierarchy
- a failed collective
- a failed hierarchy
Who thinks success would not have five or more times the influence of the structure variable?
The fifth and final experiment is the real zinger. I find it frankly jaw-dropping that it is treated as anything but an impeachment of the first four experiments. Long story short, participants had an easier time recognizing — and indicated a preference for — hierarchies that were headed by a male as opposed to a female, all else being equal. That’s not very shocking, if you live on planet Earth, where sexism pervades.
What is disturbing is that the researchers don’t reject the first four subject preference equals objective superiority conclusions based on the findings in the fifth experiment. All they’re showing — at most — is that people raised in a messed-up society show messed-up, even self-defeating preferences. No duh.
The researchers were at best gleaning whether people objectively — that is, from the outside — preferred the look of a hierarchy vs. a flat structure. They found out how people who are also generally sexist (like most of us —
male man, female woman, trans, whatever) perceive hierarchy. The subjects received no orientation, no special training, not even an explanation, as you would find in any halfway decent workplace, collective or otherwise. The study is a joke, and anyone using it to defend hierarchy looks very desperate.
All that being the case, I think it’s pretty obvious that not everyone would prefer a nonhierarchical workplace. Most people, understandably, are wary of change and newness. I’d love to see a survey of contrasting samples: those who work in collectives vs. those who work in hierarchies. Or, maybe tell us if participants who preferred male-dominated hierarchies are the same subjects that found hierarchy more comfortable in general. Then we’d know if people we should admire — those who did not show a recognition preference for male bosses — favor other forms of equality, too, at least from the outside.
What’s funniest of all is that half the Inc. article is taken up introducing the reader to Valve Software’s alternative, horizontal structure, and is not particularly critical in its assessment. For more about Valve’s awesome bossless approach, check out this analysis and this narrative.