We hosted a workshop on decentralised organising for the Civicwise network in Modena last week.

At one point I said, “I don’t care about hierarchy, hierarchy is not the problem,” and immediately felt the temperature in the room drop by a few degrees.

I know I can be provocative with my overly-concise use of language, so I wanted to take some space here to explain more thoroughly. It will take me a few minutes to describe my understanding of hierarchy and power, making the argument that this focus on “hierarchy” is a dangerous misdirection. Then in part 2, I share 11 practical steps that you can take to improve the power dynamics at your workplace, whether you’re in a horizontal collective, decentralised company, hierarchical organisation, or a post-consensus social foam.

Hierarchy Is Just a Shape

For this argument, we need to set aside our emotional and political reactions to the word “hierarchy”. Let’s pretend for a few minutes that we’ve never seen the horrible coercive inefficient hierarchies of human organisations, and just treat the word as a neutral scientific term. I’m thinking of hierarchy purely as a taxonomy, a way to map a system into nested relationships.

Take language for instance. If you tell me you hate fruit, I know not to offer you an apple. It would be impossible to make sense of the world without these hierarchical relationships.

Many natural systems can be understood through a hierarchical metaphor: a tree has a trunk and branches and twigs and leaves. I have no issue with that hierarchy. I don’t think we need a revolution for leaves to overthrow their branches.

In this taxonomical view, hierarchy is an amoral metaphor, a map, a shape which allows me to efficiently explain that this is contained by that.

I don’t think it is inherently unjust to have an organisation with some hierarchical forms. You might have a communications department, alongside an engineering department, and they may both be contained by some coordinating function.

In the kind of “self-managing” “flat” “non-hierarchical” or “less-hierarchical” organisations we work with at The Hum, org charts are usually drawn with friendly circles instead of evil triangles.

Take Enspiral, for instance. We frequently use a circular metaphor to draw a map of our the different roles in the network. I know the circle has symbolic importance for us, but… isn’t it just a pyramid viewed from a different angle?

Roles at Enspiral: Members, Contributors, Friends

So What?

More than just an abstract semantic debate for word nerds, I believe that this fascination with “hierarchy” and “non-hierarchy” is a major problem. Focussing on “hierarchy” doesn’t just miss the point, it creates cover for extremely toxic behaviour.

I have encountered so many organisations who describe themselves as “non-hierarchical”, and wear that label as a badge of pride.

I’m guilty of this myself: having declared ourselves to be a “non-hierarchical” organisation, I’m unable to clearly see the un-just, un-accountable, un-inclusive, un-transparent, un-healthy dynamics that inevitably emerge in any human group. Calling ourselves “non-hierarchical” is like a free pass that gets in the way of our self-awareness.

Jo Freeman named this beautifully in The Tyranny of Structurelessness, where she argues that the informal hierarchies of a “structureless” group will always be less accountable and fair than a more formal organisation. It’s worth reading the essay in full, but I’ll pull out a couple paragraphs here to give you the flavour:

“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. (…)

“This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, (…) usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

Freeman uses the word “structureless”, which is specific to the context of her 1960’s feminism. Today, you could swap “structureless” for “non-hierarchical” and get a very accurate diagnosis of a sickness that afflicts nearly every group that rejects hierarchical structures.

We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of this essay, and still it seems the majority of radical organisations have missed the point.

So I repeat: I don’t care about hierarchy. It’s just a shape. I care about power dynamics.

Yes, when a hierarchical shape is applied to a human group, it tends to encourage coercive power dynamics. Usually the people at the top are given more importance than the rest. But the problem is the power, not the shape. So let’s focus on the problem.

More Feminists Talking About “Power”

“Power” is a complex, loaded word, so let’s slow down again and unpack it.

My understanding borrows a lot from Miki Kashtan and Starhawk, who in turn borrow from Mary Parker Follett(To follow this train of thought, read Kashtan’s Myths of Power-With series and Starhawk’s excellent short book The Empowerment Manual.)

Follett coined the terms “power-over” and “power-with” in 1924. Starhawk adds a third category “power-from-within”. These labels provide three useful lenses for analysing the power dynamics of an organisation. With apologies to the original authors, here’s my definitions:

  • power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

I think words like “non-hierarchical”, “self-managing” and “horizontal” are kind of vague codes, pointing to our intention to create healthy power relations. In the past, when I said “Enspiral is a non-hierarchical organisation”, what I really meant was “Enspiral is a non-coercive organisation”. That’s the important piece, we’re trying to work without coercion.

These days I have mostly removed “non-hierarchical” from my vocabulary. I still haven’t found a great replacement, but for now I say “decentralised”. But again, it’s not the shape that’s interesting, it’s the power dynamics.

Here are the power dynamics I’m striving for in a “decentralised organisation”:

  1. Maximise power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
  2. Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
  3. Minimise power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behaviour are developed with a collective mandate.

This sounds nice in theory, but how does it work in practice? I’ve been experimenting with these questions for years as a cofounder and a coach, so I have some practical suggestions for shifting power in each of the three dimensions.

You can read all about it in the second part of this essay: 11 Practical Steps Towards Healthy Power Dynamics at Work.

p.s. Published by Richard D. Bartlett, with no rights reserved. You have my consent to reproduce without permission: different file formats are on my website. If you’re feeling grateful you can support me on Patreon.No rights reserved by the author.

Drawing of 3 org charts: hierarchy, consensus, blah blah… they’re just shapes!

3 Comments Hierarchy Is Not the Problem… It’s the Power Dynamics

  1. Simon GrantSimon Grant

    OK, but (as you’ve admitted Rich) you’re bending common usage here. For me it would be easier and less troublesome to make the very simple and clear change to “The shape of hierarchy is not the problem — it’s the power dynamics”, and I would wholeheartedly agree.

    Put it another way. Hierarchy – as commonly understood – combines a tree structure with power dynamics. It’s not the (inverted) tree-shaped structure by itself that is the problem. There are many legitimate, helpful, fruitful applications of tree-shaped structures in life, including trees. And it’s possible to have power dynamic problems that don’t have a tree shape — for example, as in prejudice or oppression, where a whole group of people assume superiority over another whole group.

    But on reflection, a centralised power dynamic has a tendency to create a tree structure to go with it. When power is centralised, inevitably the way that power dissipates takes the form of an inverted tree. And when there is that shape of (social) structure, it is more liable than a network structure to be hijacked — a good example of this is the Internet itself. It’s a network structure, not a tree, and therefore much more difficult to hijack.

    In the end, I just think that phrasing it the way you do is unfortunate, and risks generating more heat than light.

  2. AvatarKarl Robillard

    Yes, hierarchy is a shape. It’s a diagrammatic representation of a
    social power structure where power is concentrated in a tiny minority. If you
    are interested in democratic outcomes then the more exclusive the control, the
    more limited the domain under consideration must be. That’s not how
    a decision making hierarchy works, by definition. The control of the top node
    in the graph overrides all other nodes.

    Richard, you claim this isn’t just a semantic argument, but I fail to see how.
    As you describe, the use of a word (e.g. non-hierarchical) can be irrelevant to
    outcomes of the actual social structure. The proper course of action is to use
    words that accurately describe the environment, not discard words because we
    aren’t using them correctly or don’t understand their context.

    If you insist on a crude plant based analogy, talking about the cells that make
    up its parts might be a better way to speak about people in a larger community. The organism is a wholistic system and each cell has only a little influence on
    its overall viability. Each cell is sustained by the system and will normally
    only suffer due to environmental factors rather than the activity of other cells. This is the opposite of a human decision making hierarchy where the root dictates all and subnodes can be eliminated at whim.

  3. AvatarJack R

    Thank you Simon & Karl for saving others the trouble of critiquing and criticising the basic flaws in this article, despite it’s author presenting them as facts rather than ill-considered opinion.

    The root and meaning of all of our ‘arkhon’ words; hierarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy etc, is a description of power within that structure or culture. To say that they are merely shapes is surely nonsense.

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