The Power of Heirarchy in High Pressure Situations

by Christopher Cashman

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

The research, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows 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,” said Roderick Swaab of INSEAD. 

However, hierarchy can also create an environment that inhibits low-ranking team members from speaking up and sharing their valuable and critical insights. In the case of mountain climbers who must deal with changing environments and the integration of lots 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.

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

“Our findings show that hierarchy can simultaneously improve and undermine group performance,” said 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. Take surgery teams: the surgeon needs to be in charge to facilitate coordination. But lower-power members of the team also need to be able to speak up. This is why surgery teams put nurses in charge of the all-important check-list of procedures.”

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

And, how can strong hierarchy be of value in the business world?

“Whether a team is climbing a mountain in the Himalayas or tackling a high-stakes business challenge in the boardroom, 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,” said Anicich.

The Research

The study analyzed all expeditions that have gone up the Himalayas over the past 100 years, totaling 30,625 Himalayan mountain climbers from 56 countries on 5,104 expeditions. Findings and analyses took into consideration environmental factors, risk preferences, expedition-level characteristics, country-level characteristics and other cultural values. Further, the research results only applied to groups, not solo expeditions, demonstrating that group processes are essential for the true effects of hierarchy to emerge. 


Republished with permission from Columbia Business School. For more, visit gsb.columbia.edu.




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