Why do hierarchies exist?

Early in my career as an engineer working for the Indian Space Research Organization, I was introduced to the rules of organizational hierarchy.

One day, I walked into the cabin of the general manager of our large spacecraft facility. I told her that I had a complaint. The soap we used to wash our hands in the canteen was watered down, and I told her how this got in the way of washing our hands properly. The general manager smiled at me, thanked me for my suggestion and told me that she would look into it.

A couple of hours later, my boss, who was several levels junior to the general manager, pulled me up to ask me if I had a problem with the soap in the canteen being too dilute. He then explained to me, rather calmly and patiently, that I wasn’t to speak about toilet soap to a general manager. If I had a complaint in the future, I was to speak to him first and only then escalate to higher levels.

Why do hierarchies exist within organizations? For a large part, they exist to address people’s status needs – to massage their egos, justify their salaries and to give them authority over other people. As I left my boss’s cabin, I recognized that I had hurt the general manager’s pride.

However, they also exist for another reason that I had missed back then.

People at every level within an organization need to spend their limited time and attention in solving the right problems. If the CEO of an organization was bothered about every lightbulb in the office or every laptop that needed fixing, she would never have the time to make the more important decisions – setting the company’s annual goals, steering its business strategy and fixing its cash flow problems. Hierarchies are also in place to streamline problems so that they are the best use of the time and the attention of the people who address them.

Today’s organizations are beginning experiment with flatter organization structures. Even as we work to replace them with alternatives that don’t have their flaws, we must ensure that they retain the benefits – one of which is ensuring that the right problem is presented to the right person.

I am disappointed to mention, however, that despite my complaint, the soap in the toilet continued to be dilute in my ex-employer’s washing facilities. In the wake of the recent pandemic, I hope that things are better today!

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