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 / Spring 2005 / Issue 38(originally published by Booz & Company)


Recent Studies

This research is of most direct relevance to public- or private-sector teams in which a high level of performance is vital, team composition changes frequently, and team members have a wide range of experience and capabilities. In highlighting the notion of a leadership system and the distribution of leadership capabilities within teams, the authors provide a model for understanding the leadership needs of complex contemporary organizations.

Secrets of Managing Hierarchy
Paul V. Martorana ([email protected]), Adam D. Galinsky ([email protected]), and Hayagreeva Rao ([email protected]), “The Activist in All of Us: Varieties of Action and Low Power Attempts to Challenge Status Hierarchies,” forthcoming in Research on Managing Groups and Teams: Status (Vol. 7), M.A. Neale, E.A. Mannix, and M. Thomas-Hunt (eds.), JAI Press. Click here.

Despite all the talk of empowerment, human capital maximization, and advocacy for “adhocracy,” hierarchies are a part of life, particularly in the corporate world. Whether they are identified as relational, organizational, functional, sociological, or something else, each one of us belongs to a hierarchy.

In recent years, leadership studies researchers, who used to focus solely on management and supervision, have regularly explored the notion of “followership.” More and more, they’re looking into the dynamics of activists — people who try to disrupt rigid organizational hierarchy.

Paul V. Martorana, a doctoral student; Adam D. Galinsky, assistant professor of management and organizations; and Hayagreeva Rao, the Richard L. Thomas Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change, all of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, examine why these activists challenge hierarchies.

In general, people accept the hierarchy they are a part of, partially because powerlessness makes people acquiescent. This explains why the most extreme power hierarchies — such as dictatorships — tend to endure for so long. In these situations, people accept what the authors call “hierarchy-legitimizing myths,” conclusions that are deemed to be true, but may not be, and that promote discrimination and inequality. For example, poor people will accept the stereotypical logic that they are broke but happy, whereas the wealthy are rich but sad.

According to the authors, three elements motivate subordinates in a hierarchy to become activists. First, people must feel they have power despite their comparatively low position in the existing hierarchy. The authors specifically define such power as “the ability to control resources, [one’s] own and others’, without social interference.”

Second, subordinates must experience emotions that are likely to lead to feelings of power. These may include pride and anger. When people low in a hierarchical structure are angry, they are more likely to identify injustice in the organization and that, in turn, may empower them.

Third, people must perceive that the system is illegitimate and unstable, and its boundaries are impermeable — that is, there is little opportunity for working one’s way up.

When people in a hierarchy experience all three of these feelings at the same time, the consequences can be highly destabilizing for any type of institution. As an example, the authors point to the Los Angeles riots of 1991 triggered by the Rodney King trial, in which police officers were acquitted in spite of apparently incriminating video footage. The post-trial rioting, the researchers argue, was a case in which disdain for a system led to anger, empowerment, and overt activism.

If only some of the three elements exist, activism may be more covert. For instance, the Luddites rebelled against technological progress in the 19th century by sabotaging textile looms, because they didn’t feel powerful enough to be more open about their protest.

The implications for modern business leaders are significant — more than these examples might suggest. If companies accept that granting some power to employees is a good thing, then they also have to accept greater employee activism. But to make sure that this activism does not torpedo the organization, managers must constantly monitor the legitimacy and stability of the corporate system, which includes being vigilant in ensuring that the organization’s values and its actions, as perceived by employees, are considered fair.

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