The Myth of the Extinct Hierarchy: 
Why Leadership Training Fails
by Joe DiSabatino and Janet Oliver

You hear the message everywhere: businesses need to break away from the old top heavy chain-of-command style of leadership if they are going to compete successfully in the 21st century. Formal hierarchy and traditional lines of power are out. Participatory management, teams, informal structures based on expertise or special projects, and decentralized decision-making are in.

Business leaders have heard the mantra departing employees are chanting as they walk out the door; communication problems in the company and micromanagement by their boss are intolerable. In response, senior-level management sends its leaders to management training where they learn to listen and communicate more effectively, use a barrage of personality and 360 assessment tools, share their feelings, generate open dialogue and conversation, and think systemically. To further improve quality and loyalty, top leaders reinvent and reengineer their corporations, revamp them into learning organizations, decentralize them into teams, revision them into the future, and ask every employee to create endless pages of annual objectives and competencies.

Generally, new management and leadership fads seem to work extremely well for some companies for a short time until return-on-investment in training on these methods nose-dives into steep decline.  New fads emerge as the commitment level to a methodology originating from the top wanes when the economy or the CEO changes.

Is this brief lifespan for new management trends inevitable? Or are we missing something essential, an X -factor that acts like a virus on the best intentions of new management philosophies, that corrupts and corrodes their usefulness over time, until they are shelved like outdated Windows versions?

In all the current management books, there is an important factor that is being overlooked. Time and time again, managers are told that to improve employee retention they must improve their communication skills and become more empowering. Often companies listen too literally to the reasons their departing employees give for leaving. If an employee says he had communication problems with his boss, then his boss is sent for communication skills training.  If micro-management was the departing gripe then the boss must learn how to delegate, empower, and coach.

We need to take a more in-depth look at what employees are saying when they complain about “communication” or “micro-management” problems at work. Many marriage therapists have found that communication training alone rarely improves a squabbling couple’s relationship, even though they will universally identify “communication problems” as their main issue. Despite improving communication skills, their fundamental problems remain the same.  What makes us think that it will suddenly work in managerial relationships instead?

So what is really going on here? What is it within organizations that seems to de-claw and neuter revolutionary management ideas within a few years, absorbing them into the status quo?  The answer may be simple but not immediately obvious: as much as we like to think otherwise, power, authority, chains of command, and authoritarian hierarchies are formidable organizational realities. Like massive boulders in the fast stream of organizational change, their presence is only ignored at a price. Something in us wants to avoid honestly acknowledging the dimensions of power operating beneath the surface within ourselves and within the organizations we work for.  No matter how often leadership literature announces the extinction of traditional hierarchical models, the hierarchical dinosaur, nevertheless, survives, often in covert ways.

Are new egalitarian leaderships models contra naturum?  In order to accomplish essential survival tasks, do human beings naturally organize themselves into hierarchies based on increasing ability to bring home the desired goods? An argument can be made that the hierarchical model has been engrained in our collective psyche through countless millennia despite the inherent flaws in this way of getting things done. In his book Kinds of Power, psychologist James Hillman says, “The leader cannot help but come forward and cannot help being pushed forward by others who intuitively recognize leadership and submit to a hierarchical structure, the pecking order.”

This supposed hierarchical necessity not only clashes with contemporary management ideas but also with fundamental values of the American culture. A fierce sense of individual equality combines with our belief in the power and right of the masses to vote against or resist centralized authority if they disagree with what is coming down the pike. 

And yet from the time we enter school, our first job, or the military, we are told to listen, obey, follow orders, respect the chain of command, and be good followers in order to be good leaders someday.  One of the fascinating aspects of American culture is the dynamic tension that has existed for over two centuries between the Declaration of Independence engraved in each citizen’s psyche, layered over top of much older, species-wide experiences that say just as accurately, “All men are not created equal.”

No one talks about this contradictory tension. The new leadership gurus tell us that the hierarchical way of sailing a corporate ship can be tossed overboard with the captain and his first mate, and replaced with hands-off sailing or sailing by consensus. Sounds good. But unpredictable foibles of the sea, unequal sailing experience, differing levels of composure under pressure, risk-taking tolerance levels, and basic human competitiveness will always be there, along with the disgruntled voices of suppressed authority heard in the background, ready to re-assert their power if conditions warrant. Conditions often do.  How quickly is the team approach put on the back burner in times of a budgetary crisis?  Then grumbling begins about so-called “communication” problems in the organization.

To avoid giving confusing and frustrating double messages, organizations need to openly examine and define as clearly as possible the line where hierarchical control ends and participatory management begins, a topic rarely discussed. That “thin red line” is hard to discern yet its presence can be sensed in every internal document, action, policy and decision made by an organization. If left unacknowledged, this tension at the demarcation line between opposing worldviews—hierarchy vs. participation based on equality—can and will create serious problems.

In other words, so-called “communication” and “micromanagement” problems are really symptoms of the unacknowledged tension within hierarchical organizations striving for a participatory management culture. The lack of awareness of  this tension is a blind spot in our organizations, our relationships, and in our culture. This tension creates passive resistance towards any organizational change when employees experience the resulting gap between promises of empowerment and hidden hierarchical realities.  Formal authority is still there, sneaking up through the cracks in the organizational joints where the new participatory models are plastered over the old one.

Any organization with a formal hierarchy that embraces a participatory management culture automatically creates this pervasive dynamic tension with potential for both creative accomplishment and disaster.  Handling this tension requires special considerations.  If it is ignored, power is sapped from the organization by the loss of creative, high-energy staff. 

What are the observable symptoms of this ignored tension?

Symptom #1:   Managers give mixed messages to their employees.
Warning Signals:

  • Managers give employees the impression that they have decision-making authority over an area of their jobs and then withdraw authority or change the person’s work at a later time.
  • Managers give the impression that staff recommendations, opinions, and analyses are wanted and then make a final decision to the contrary.
  • They solicit honest, open feedback from direct reports and then subtly punish them for doing so.
  • An “open door” policy in the employee handbook encourages any employee to discuss problems with any level of authority in the organization, yet it is “politically incorrect” to do so in practice.

Symptom #2:   Informal organizational cliques and secret coalitions that subvert the formal hierarchical structure are formed.
Warning Signals:

  • Managers make critical comments about their boss during department meetings.
  • Managers from different departments criticize their mutual boss in earshot of direct reports.
  • Employees sidestep the formal chain of command and go above their immediate boss to express a complaint or get something done.

Symptom # 3: Trust and credibility erodes as employees lose faith that an organization’s actions will match its espoused participatory values.
Warning Signals:

  • Employees passively resist new organizational structures and procedures giving their half-hearted compliance at best.
  • Employees show symptoms of emotionally separating themselves from their jobs and from the organization as a whole.  Performance suffers and job-hunting begins.
  • Employees finally divorce the organization physically, leaving for perceived greener pastures.

The most successful managers are able to clearly articulate to direct reports where their hierarchical power and authority lies and how much they are willing or able to share it. If they are not sure they say so.  Employee respect and loyalty towards a manager increases in proportion to the degree he or she is honest and explicit about the realities of this boundary. Micro-management is a form of deception that arises when a manager mishandles the tension between hierarchical realities and participatory values.  Micro-management is often cyclical—it usually follows a period of attempted “hands-off” management that is perceived as not working.

To improve employee loyalty, the success of organizational goals, and employee acceptance of and commitment to models of organizational change there are five actions leaders and managers can take.  These actions will target the root cause of the three symptoms discussed above.

Action #1:  Clearly define organizational roles, expectations and boundaries. 
This begins with having clear, focused and thorough job descriptions for each position. Ensure that the power/authority parameters are as explicit as can be in every job description. Define the employee’s role not only within his/her own department but make sure each person knows how their department fits into the whole. Don’t assume that the Human Resources department has made this clear during their orientation, or that the new employee will remember it even if HR has done so. Go over it again after they have settled into their new job.  Managers should be able to clearly define to their staff the answers to these questions: How do I fit into the whole? What are the limits of my decision-making authority? What exactly is my role? Provide employees with clear definitions of organizational values, expected behaviors, and norms on an organizational and departmental level. Of utmost importance, managers need to define and communicate what and where the authority and decision-making boundaries are for each project from the start.

Action #2:  Minimize occurrences of giving power, authority, and decision-making ability to an employee and then taking them away. 
Give timely status reports and feedback to staff about what actions have been taken or not on projects they have given ideas, recommendations or other input. Don’t wait until the final decision is made at the top; communicate as much as you can about the decision-making process that is taking place. Be aware of your own control or assertiveness issues that can lead to contradictory messages and behaviors. Do something about them if this is a problem area. Managers should ask themselves: do I contradict myself? Ask for feedback from direct reports about this. If you need to change already defined boundaries and expectations due to unforeseen events, tell people you are doing so and why. In addition, think about the authority implications of the words you use. Do you want a solution or a recommendation? If you say you want creativity and innovation, you are implicitly bestowing a degree of freedom that you may not be able to give.  Be clear and explicit about decision-making boundaries.

Action #3: Be aware of the symbolic messages you send from your position in the hierarchy.
Often a manager’s silence or lack of feedback is interpreted as disapproval or rejection. When the president speaks, for example, everyone listens.  If he doesn’t say anything, people wonder why and may jump to false conclusions about the intent and hidden meanings of his silence.  To avoid misunderstandings, verbalize your thinking during meetings, one-on-one discussions, or even on the elevator and in the hallway.  You may be slightly frowning while you silently weigh the cost of a proposal being discussed, but the person in front of you whose ideas you solicited may interpret your frown or silence as a negative judgment.

Action #4: Don’t undermine the hierarchy.
Be aware of how and where your ego or ambitions could be openly or indirectly undermining the organization’s ability to accomplish its goals. Fight openly for your position/opinion, but once a decision is made, support it. Direct reports will pick up the nuances of your lack of commitment to a new policy, plan or procedure, and they will mirror your attitude. When you undermine, sabotage, complain, whine or subvert for your own personal reasons, you are undermining the whole organization. Gossip and backbiting, particularly within hearing range of employees, does more damage than you think. The higher your position, the more you are observed. Develop sensitivity to and respect for organizational turf and protocol. A commendable, simple desire on your part to get something done fast could have the unintended effect of wounding someone’s positional ego. If you need to do an organizational end-run, notify the person or department you are circumventing. 

Action # 5: Eliminate unnecessary information flow blocks. 
Give people the information they need to do their jobs, don’t hoard it. The timely distribution of information is more important than the quantity. As an information gatekeeper, be aware that people can easily get angry with you simply because you hold that position. Our democratic values about access rights to information will always conflict with the hierarchical tendency to protect information.  An employee’s departing comments about “communication problems” may mean that you have not managed to regulate the information dissemination game in your organization.

An essential management skill that leaders in the coming century will need to  continue developing is the ability to keep both balls in the air: responding progressively to evolving models of participatory management while being straightforward and realistic about their authority and the power structure they are part of.  Leaders who do it well have staffs who admire them and are reluctant to leave, even for higher compensation.

Hillman, James; Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses; Doubleday, 1995, 
pg. 150

About the Authors:
Joe DiSabatino has twenty years international experience as an executive coach, top-level manager, family therapist, and trainer.  He has a Master's degree in Counseling and has published articles in professional journals.  As an expert in the practical application of systems theory, he designs innovative approaches to leadership development.

Janet Oliver has over fifteen years of organizational and human resource development experience in the United States and Europe. She has served as an executive and internal consultant for Fortune 200 companies and consulted with organizations in a wide variety of industries. Janet's proven corporate track record and Master's degree in Business ensure an approach to organizational development that is realistic and practical.

Joe and Janet are currently senior partners of Phoenix Consulting Associates, a leadership development and management coaching business in the Washington, D.C. area. Contact Phoenix Consulting Associates by telephone: (703) 319-1013; or by e-mail: and visit .

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