The power and pitfalls of hierarchy in high-pressure situations

Is hierarchy in groups good or bad? In a word: yes, according to a new study from management researchers at Columbia Business School and graduate business school INSEAD.

The researchers analyzed more than 30,000 Himalayan climbers and 5,000 expeditions over the past 100 years to assess the impact that hierarchical cultures can have in high-pressure group situations. The implications go far beyond the side of a mountain and can resonate from the boardroom to the operating room.

Findings and analyses took into consideration environmental factors, risk preferences, expedition-level characteristics, country-level characteristics, and other cultural values.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that a strong hierarchy can increase both summit and fatality rates in the Himalayas. Clear hierarchies help groups achieve the best outcomes by offering coordination, organization, and less conflict during high-pressure situations.

Even firms that strive for organizational flatness have discovered the importance of hierarchy for helping groups accomplish their goals.

An experiment at Google that eliminated managers lasted only a few months. Google quickly realized that it needed some hierarchy to help set strategy and facilitate collaboration.

"These processes explain why a strong hierarchy can help expeditions reach the top of the mountain: Like the symphonic movement of a beehive, hierarchy helps the group become more than the sum of its parts," says Roderick Swaab of INSEAD.

However, hierarchy can also create an environment that inhibits low-ranking team members from speaking up and sharing valuable insights.

In the case of mountain climbers who must deal with changing environments and the integration of a lot of different data, the research team: which includes Swaab of INSEAD and Eric Anicich and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School: found that this lack of voice can contribute to catastrophic endings.

Achieving the Right Balance

So, what's the right balance of hierarchy for success?

"Our findings show that hierarchy can simultaneously improve and undermine group performance," says Galinsky. "The key to finding the right balance in a hierarchy is identifying the barriers that keep lower-ranking team members from voicing their perspective and providing them with opportunities for empowerment, like owning a task, or having authority over a specific initiative."

In addition to these structural interventions, Swaab adds that "leaders also need to set clear norms that produce a constructive dialogue, especially since hierarchical values are hard to change once adopted."

"Whether a team is climbing a mountain in the Himalayas or tackling a high-stakes business challenge," says Anicich, "it's critical to leverage the coordination benefits of hierarchy while also embracing an environment that encourages and rewards participation and input from all levels."

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