NEW YORK—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 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.
About Columbia Business School
Columbia Business School is the only world–class, Ivy League business school that delivers a learning experience where academic excellence meets with real–time exposure to the pulse of global business. Led by Dean Glenn Hubbard, the School’s transformative curriculum bridges academic theory with unparalleled exposure to real–world business practice, equipping students with an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to recognize, capture, and create opportunity in any business environment. The thought leadership of the School’s faculty and staff, combined with the accomplishments of its distinguished alumni and position in the center of global business, means that the School’s efforts have an immediate, measurable impact on the forces shaping business every day. To learn more about Columbia Business School’s position at the very center of business, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
As one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD brings together people, cultures and ideas to change lives and to transform organizations. A global perspective and cultural diversity are reflected in all aspects of our research and teaching. With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and Abu Dhabi, INSEAD’s business education and research spans three continents. Our 150 renowned Faculty members from 34 countries inspire more than 1,300 degree participants annually in our MBA, Executive MBA, Specialized Master’s degrees (Master in Finance, Executive Master in Consulting and Coaching for Change) and PhD programs. In addition, more than 11,000 executives participate in INSEAD’s Executive Education programs each year. In addition to INSEAD’s programs on our three campuses, INSEAD participates in academic partnerships with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia & San Francisco); the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University near Chicago; the Johns Hopkins University/SAIS in Washington DC; the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York; and MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Asia, INSEAD partners with School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing and China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai. INSEAD is a founding member in the multidisciplinary Sorbonne University created in 2012, and also partners with Fundação Dom Cabral in Brazil. INSEAD became a pioneer of international business education with the graduation of the first MBA class on the Fontainebleau campus in Europe in 1960. In 2000, INSEAD opened its Asia campus in Singapore. And in 2007 the school began an association in the Middle East, officially opening the Abu Dhabi campus in 2010. Around the world and over the decades, INSEAD continues to conduct cutting edge research and to innovate across all our programs to provide business leaders with the knowledge and sensitivity to operate anywhere. These core values have enabled us to become truly "The Business School for the World."