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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Hierarchy Is Bad For Motivation

Hierarchy Is Bad For Motivation post image

Whenever a topic of motivation at work pops up I always bring up Dan Pink’s point. In the context of knowledge work, in order to create an environment where people are motivated we need autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

The story is nice and compelling. However, what we don’t realize instantly is how high Dan Pink sets the bar. Let me leave the purpose part aside for now. It is worth the post on its own. Let’s focus on autonomy and mastery.

First of all, especially in the context of software development, there’s a strong correlation between the two. Given that I have enough autonomy in how I organize my work and how the work gets done, I most likely can pursue mastery as well. There are edge cases of course, but most frequently autonomy translates to mastery (not necessarily so the other way around though).

The problem is that the way organizations are managed does not support autonomy across the board. Vast majority of organization employs hierarchy-driven structures. A line worker has a manager, that manager has their own manager, and so on and so forth up to a CEO.

The hierarchy itself isn’t that much of an issue though. What is an issue is how power is distributed within the hierarchy. Typically specific powers are assigned to specific levels of management. A line manager can do that much. A middle manager that much. A senior manager even more. Each manager is a ruler of their own kingdom.

Why is power distribution so important? Well, ultimately in knowledge organizations power is used for one purpose: making decisions. And decision-making is a perfect proxy if we are interested in assessing autonomy.

Of course each ruler has a fair level of flexibility when it comes to decide how the decision-making happens in their teams. There are, however, mechanisms that discourage them to change the common pattern, i.e. a dictatorship model.

The hierarchical, a.k.a. dictatorship, model has its advantages. Namely it addresses the risks of indecisiveness and accountability. Given that power is clearly distributed across the hierarchy we always know who is supposed to make a decision and thus who should be kept accountable for it.

That’s great. Unfortunately, at the same time it discourages attempts to distribute decision-making. As a manager I’m still kept accountable for all the relevant decisions made so I better make them myself or double-check whether I agree with those made by a team.

This in turn means that normally there’s very little autonomy in hierarchical organizations.

It brings us to a sad realization. The most common organizational structures actively discourage autonomy and authority distribution.

If we come back to where we started – what are the drivers for motivation – we would derive that we should see really low levels of motivation out there. I mean, vast majority of companies adopt the hierarchical model as it was the only thing there is. Not only that though. Even within hierarchical model we may introduce a culture that encourages autonomy, yet very, very few companies are doing so.

We could conclude that if the above argument is true we would expect really low levels of motivation globally in the workforce. It is a safe assumption that high motivation would result in engagement and vice versa.

Interestingly enough Gallup run a global survey on employee engagement. The bottom line is that only 13% of employees are engaged in work. Thirteen. It would have been a shock if not the fact that we just proposed that one of the current management paradigms – a prevalent organizational structure – is unsuitable to introduce autonomy across the board and thus high levels of motivation.

In fact, active disengagement, which would translate to being openly disgruntled, is universally more common that engagement. Now, that tells a story, doesn’t it?

What we look at here is that modern workplace is not well-suited for achieving high motivation and high engagement of employees. There are certain things that can change the situation within structural constraints. There are good stories on how to encourage the right behaviors without tearing down the whole hierarchy.

It is also a challenge for a dominant management paradigm that makes a rigid hierarchy a prevalent and by far the most popular organizational structure out there. While such hierarchy addresses specific risks it isn’t the only way of dealing with them. The price we pay for following that path is extremely high.

I for once consider that price too high.

in: team management

4 comments… add one

  • Julia C. Ellison July 26, 2015, 9:56 am

    Hi Pawel, I have read the post. Well! you’ve raised very important points about the organization’s hierarchal structure. Truly I hadn’t thought it before like this. I just need to bookmark your blog. Thanks.

  • Cristalexi August 5, 2015, 2:44 am

    I really like your article. If only 13% of the workforce are engaging and there are very low levels of motivation, then it can’t be true that this model is the most productive which is what they use to justify it.

  • Edna June 22, 2016, 1:35 am

    Hi Pawel, I wonder if this software will work for me. I believe if it can work then the level of motivation will rise.

  • Audrey November 14, 2017, 2:10 pm

    Have thought the same thing practically my whole life. Capitalism is yet another economic structure that keeps hierarchies alive. What a waste of human potential.

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