Should we do away with hierarchy in higher education?

I’ve found myself questioning whether a holacratic system, in which there are no managers or leaders, would work in universities, says Aspasia Eleni Paltoglou

Aspasia Eleni Paltoglou 's avatar
Manchester Metropolitan University
3 Nov 2021
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Is it possible to have no hierarchy in the workplace? Do traditional hierarchical systems impede our ability to be creative? I expected that the answers to these two questions would be “yes”, when I started listening to A Recipe for Happiness by Matthew Syed on BBC Radio 4.

Such a situation is known as a holacracy. There are no managers or leaders and staff are organised in autonomous groups. Organisations tend to adopt this thinking in the hope of increasing creativity and innovation, yet its effectiveness appears to depend on factors such as the size of the company, with larger companies being more difficult to organise in this way.

University departments tend to be organised hierarchically, and ours is no exception. So I wondered, should we do away with staff hierarchies? Would we be more innovative in our research and teaching if we had a holacracy?

There is some evidence that if the work environment is organised in a way that encourages the level of creativity required for the work then there are positive outcomes. Being an academic is a highly creative occupation. It takes years to develop the required expertise, and academics are often involved in teaching and research in a variety of subjects. Each of them might require different practices and there are often no generic rules that can lead to effective and innovative practice.

Academics strive to find the right balance between, on the one hand, being independent and forging their own paths in teaching and research, and on the other hand, becoming part of the hierarchy within their academic institution, which inevitably means following instructions and guidance from colleagues further up the hierarchy. It is a difficult balance to strike.

It has been suggested that hierarchies are inevitable, as well as beneficial for promoting cooperation and reducing aggression. Interestingly, there seems to be a tendency for informal hierarchies to form, even if there is no formal hierarchy within a group. These informal hierarchies, however, can have negative associations with creativity. It is entirely conceivable that such informal hierarchies can and do emerge in holacratic organisations too.

Given such evidence, not to mention my own experience, it seems that eliminating formal hierarchy in university departments would be a step too far. Apart from the possibility that ineffective informal hierarchies would emerge, problems could arise due to diffusion of responsibility.

But that is not to say all is well in the formal, often rigid hierarchical systems we currently find in most universities. Apart from potentially negative effects on creativity, the status of an individual within the hierarchy can have powerful, often negative effects on the well-being and cognitive functioning of individuals. So, rather than moving to holacracy, perhaps the question becomes how we can mitigate the limitations of hierarchical organisation.

Management style is a key factor. For example, a formal team leader who empowers their team by encouraging collaborative decision-making, member input and difference of opinion can eliminate the negative link between creativity and informal group hierarchies.

Furthermore, there is evidence that empathetic management is positively correlated with perceived employee creativity. The literature suggests that empathetic management creates an environment of trust and cooperation that promotes positive mood and confidence. As a result, employees feel safe coming up with and sharing unconventional ideas and opinions.

To give an example from my own workplace, one of the departmental leads with an enviable research record revealed recently how there were some years in which they did not publish anything at all. They said this with the explicit aim of reassuring us in case we were going through a fallow year publication-wise − a fine example of empathetic management that recognises the realities of research, in which experiments sometimes do not work as expected or when, particularly at the beginning of a research journey, publications are not as frequent.

Is there a causal link between empathetic management and higher creativity, innovation and productivity in teaching and research in universities? Unfortunately, this question requires further research, ideally longitudinal studies that include various objective and subjective measures of creativity and innovation.

Another consideration is whether management gives employees enough autonomy. The ideal, in my view, is management providing employees with a helpful guidance framework, without enforcing compliance with rigid guidelines. Tim Harford, in his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, discusses the merits of trusting the boots on the ground to take the initiative and deal with rapidly changing situations on the front line, rather than forcing them to blindly follow an official line from the top of the hierarchy, which can be out of touch, misguided and can stifle creativity.

The recent shift to online teaching because of Covid-19 comes to mind. There is little doubt that universities that provided all the necessary support while giving teaching teams the autonomy to adjust official guidance to their unit’s needs and day-to-day experience would have been rewarded with more innovative and effective teaching.

In the end, hierarchy is almost inevitable, so it is important that management provides the support, autonomy and understanding needed by academics to help them develop as researchers and educators. As Syed puts it, the key is to “fuse the benefits of hierarchy with the bottom-up dynamism that underpins innovation”.

Aspasia Eleni Paltoglou is senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University.


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