People seem to love their hierarchies. They are everywhere—in the workplace, in culture, and even, strangely enough, in families. But this isn’t a blog about why those hierarchies suck—that’s been done all too often and by far better thinkers than me. How do you spell hierarchy?

1. Hierarchies create a “top down” culture

You know what I’m talking about. It’s the kind of culture where people seem to always be waiting for someone else to tell them what to do, or expecting higher authorities to approve everything they do. It leads to people waiting around and doing nothing unless they have explicit orders or approval from “above”. People at the top become a bottleneck for everything and this causes delays and inefficiencies. It also tends to create people who are more interested in the appearance of authority than in doing the right thing.

A more perceptive person might wonder why I’ve lumped “hierarchies” under “culture”. Isn’t culture supposed to be a reflection of how we live our lives? But no, what I mean is that hierarchies work against all of that. A hierarchy means that there is someone at the top of a system and everything below him or her has no real power—at least not in any significant way.

The most obvious example is the Pope, which you would think would be completely incompatible with democracy, but it isn’t—if anything, it’s even more democratic than a direct democracy would be.

2. Hierarchies create “us vs. them” culture

When you have people in a hierarchy, the ones at the bottom feel weaker and more insignificant. This leads to resentment which gives rise to all sorts of nasty behaviour, especially towards those below you. This is because in hierarchies, people are treated as “resources” rather than as individual human beings who have their own experiences and feelings.

A good example of this is found in the military. Soldiers often dehumanize the enemy since it makes it easier for them to kill them—something that would be hard if they thought of them as human beings living lives just like their own.

3. Hierarchies create a “them vs. us” culture

When you have people in a hierarchy, they always see those below them as inferior or inferiors. This leads to conflict and suspicion because the group stuck at the bottom feels that those above them are trying to crush it underfoot. This is why hierarchies often lead to “us vs them” groupthink where people are all too happy to advance their own agenda at the expense of everyone else.

Another way of saying this is that they’re either winning or losing—there’s no middle ground because there’s no room for mediocrity or objective debate.

4. Hierarchies create “bosses”

People who work under a boss usually hate them because they feel like they’re being treated as a resource or a set of instructions. Bosses also tend to be more interested in looking authoritative than in doing the right thing and this can lead them to come off as self-serving and untrustworthy.

5. Hierarchies create resentment

As systems, hierarchies are also very wasteful—they create unnecessary bottlenecks and kill individual initiative by making people wait for permission from their superiors. They also tend to crush people’s creativity by making people conform to the system and only do what they are told or encouraged to do. All of this creates resentment which often leads to some pretty ugly behaviour.

6. Hierarchies are inefficient

People who work within a hierarchy always have to clear everything with those above them. This means that they can’t act on their own initiative unless it’s in the best interests of those above them, which almost never happens. The problem is that hierarchies are designed to pile authority and decision-making power on top, not at the bottom—and that means everything has to be approved from the top downwards, which is why hierarchies tend to be so inefficient.

7. Hierarchies can be really destructive

Because hierarchies require people to submit to authority, they often lead to conflict. When you have a system where someone must be right in order to win, this leads to someone hiding mistakes, exaggerating the importance of their stories and trying to cover up their own shortcomings. When people are forced into hierarchies, they often act in a very self-serving way and put themselves above everyone else. That’s what makes them so dangerous—they can destroy things from within as well as from without.

8. Hierarchies are divisive

Because hierarchies require people submitting to authority, they divide groups into groups of “haves” and “have nots”. This is totally contrary to the way that most people want to live—we’re not like that, we’re all equals. Hierarchies also divide groups into those who are on top and those who are on the bottom, which is a pretty scary idea—who are we? How can we live together at all when there’s such a huge difference between us?

9. Hierarchies can lead to fascism

This is a really interesting concept and it’s one of those ideas that I think doesn’t get enough attention. Hierarchies lead to some pretty extreme forms of behavior and violence because they work so well in dividing people in “us” against “them” groups. This is why it’s very difficult to escape all hierarchies and for this reason, we should be very careful about creating more of them.

10. Hierarchies are toxic

As systems, hierarchies are toxic because they make people so unhappy and disconnected from themselves that they can’t function as well as they could if they were in a more egalitarian system. In some cases this leads to suicide—which is kind of ironic when you think about it. It’s also why hierarchies often lead to highly stressful environments where people feel trapped and trapped by the system itself. It’s not surprising that hierarchies tend to lead to high rates of anxiety disorders —something that I’ve written about here .


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