Lots of people these days have a problem with work hierarchies, and with good reason. Their experience of them is that bosses micro-manage or change the rules to suit themselves. They take over as much of your life as they can, and have no loyalty to anyone but themselves.
Sadly, this is indeed the case in many situations. But that’s not work hierarchy. Oddly, it’s actually a failure of organization. But most people don’t see this, especially in New Economy companies which rely almost solely on Creative Class outputs. Work hierarchies are intended to control other people, they say, and the solution is to keep organizations small and let “natural selection” and ordering take place. An emergent, natural and righteous workplace will emerge, free of the Power Mad Boss syndrome.
Methinks these people have never seen a tribe of baboons or chimpanzees.
The real issue is that the people making these suggestions don’t understand that all work is making decisions. I’ve actually sat in a room with a bunch of prima donna software developers — the type whose feathers get ruffled at the merest hint of an upper manager putting limits on what can be done — have the nerve to say that the people who use the systems that they design should just be made to use it, and if they don’t comply they should get fired. “I should be able to make decisions over my own work area, but I should be able to tell you how you should do your work.”
No, everyone should have — and fulfilling their jobs requires — the discretion to make decisions about their work, within known limits. If you’re chaffing at the constraints, maybe the problem is that you are too big for your job and the decision-making discretion you long for is outside of it.
Wilfred Brown tackled some of these issues in his 1971 management classic, Organization (London: Heinneman Educational Books, Ltd.). At the time the retired from both leading Glacier Metal Company, a multi-national concern, and a Minister of State at the Board of Trade, Brown found the then popular American idea of “informal organization” “a contradiction in terms. ‘Informal’ implies the lack of structure, whereas ‘organization’ implies the existence of one.”  If you can’t get his difference here, you are probably not going to be successful with innovative organizational forms and power lines.
To the charge that informal organization gives people the opportunity to make decisions, denied to them within Brown’s “work hierarchies”:
This is false, because the raison d’dêtre of formal organization is to use human decision-making ability to its fullest possible extent. Any failure of organization to achieve this situation calls for better organization — not its abolition.
The false assumption of the ‘informal organization’ school of thinking arises form its failure to realize that human work inevitably concerns ‘decision-making’. If work does not require decisions to be made there should be no need to employe human beings to do it.
I’m thinking that people who were underemployed liked the idea of an “informal organization” where they could be under the radar change agents, setting new policy for the corporation. Sadly, this was true of the early days of the corporate PC, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes in Change Masters. But it seems that this was a failure of management, including the managers of MIS, to give certain workers sufficient decision-making discretion over their work. And that’s what they wanted the “informal organization” to give them.
I’ve certainly been there. I always loved working in a crisis where everyone else was running around like the proverbial chicken. Having grown up raising hens for eating, I can tell you that they really reminded me of them. That would let me sneak in a major change that would be good for the corporation but should have been outside my purview. I used the “informal organization” to end-run around managers.
The problem there was two-fold:
- I was working below my capability, much less capacity, since most of what I put in is still in use, and made the groups much more productive and satisfied.
- The organizations weren’t. They were un-organizations.
I looked at hierarchy as a way of shoving things down my throat, so I wanted to overturn hierarchies. It was only after I worked for a manager who actually added value to my work, rather than wasted my time, that I understood that bosses could actually serve a purpose.
Brown talks about this, too:
The fact is that the ‘informal organization’ thinkers tend to regard formal organization as a structure of roles down which specific work-tasks are delegated. They do not think of roles as containing precisely defined areas over which the occupant has to make all the decisions. As a result the idea of informality is essential to them, in order to provide the opportunity for somebody to spot the need for a decision to be taken and have the courage to take it. But if instead a role is defined by delineating an area over which the occupant of the role has, as a duty, to exercise discretion and take the necessary decisions, then there is no need to think in terms of informality as a mechanism for filling the gaps left by inadequate formal organization. 
Work hierarchy, when approached in a Real Boss way, restores decision-making discretion to jobs. It is in the unnatural, “Fake Boss with the pointy-hair” hierarchies that we have our decision making stripped from us. This strips away our dignity as people.
So don’t do that. Remember that everyone’s job involves some form of decision making. And just because it’s in a form that you would find boring doesn’t mean that it’s boring work.
Because that person, like you, is the killer app.
Image Credit: Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois. 1952 by Thomas J. O’Halloran, U.S. News & World Report Magazine. Donated into the public domain. Via Library of Congress.