THE END OF HIERARCHIES AND THE ALTERNATIVES
by Dr. Lawrence Wilson
© July 2011, The Center For Development
One of the most profound changes today is the crumbling of many traditional hierarchies by which society has been ordered and bound. These include traditional means to organizing education, the work place, medical care, and even religion.
This article discusses this fascinating area of social change that is both upsetting and perplexing, yet offers to mankind an opportunity to reform and redo the structures and institutions of society in far better and more humane and more effective manners.
WHAT IS A HIERARCHY?
A hierarchy is nothing less than a pecking order or placing of human beings within a structure of some kind in a special order, often determined by laws, customs, rules or conduct or some other type of structuring mechanism. Hierarchies are used to make decisions in rational ways, to avoid confusion, to order people around in a way that operates efficiently, and for other reasons.
Hierarchies have been a feature of planet earth for many thousands of years. Familiar examples are the hierarchy of the Catholic church, for example, or a government bureaucracy, or the officers of the army, or the presidents, vice presidents, secretaries and others who work in all offices and businesses around the world. Others are the setup in schools with the teachers, administrators, principles, board of directors and of course, the students at the bottom of the ladder.
The way hierarchies generally work is that one enters at the bottom, and one slowly moves up the system until one is near the top. Any deviation from the values of the hierarchical system are usually punished by sending one down the ladder a few rungs, while those who follow orders and carry out the wishes of those on top, are promoted faster up the ladder, as it is called in business and in government bureaucracy.
For many millions of people, hierarchies have been their social norm, and it is all they know. They know about community leaders, religious hierarchies they are part of, family hierarchies, as well as the familiar hierarchies at work, at play, in sports, and everywhere else. This is the norm on earth that is changing, and making many people somewhat anxious, often angry, and depressed, although they may not know exactly why. They feel something is being lost as the hierarchies of education, unions, and even government and some businesses, are being criticized as inefficient, corrupt, unfair, prejudiced and so on. Since they see no alternatives, they are visibly upset as to what will happen if these structures of society are dismantled or even threatened. Let us discuss solutions.
WHAT CAN REPLACE SOME HIERARCHIES?
Many possibilities actually exist, and have been tried on many occasions. Some work better than others. This section of the article discusses many of the most common ones.
Before discussing them, however, it necessary to point out that all change is disruptive. A little chaos is inevitable, therefore. As hierarchies are challenged and crumble, some before our eyes, society will be somewhat chaotic, at least until alternatives are found. This is inevitable, but not necessarily a bad thing. It is bad if no structure is in place and chaos and anarchy rule. However, if it means that we will experiment with alternatives, then it is okay. However, one must be relaxed and open and willing to try various options to see how they are working.
NEW WAYS TO MAKE DECISIONS
Human beings can organize and make decisions in different ways. Corporations, today, are experimenting with many of these ideas, as are some other institutuions. However, much more experimentation is needed. If one does not decide issues through a hierarchy, such as a military or business model, here are other ways to do it:
1. Voting or a democratic process. This, of course, is done in government to choose leaders in many nations. It is also done in business, and even in the military and religious groups, to some degree. Voting is seen as fairer, takes into account the wishes of more people, and works well in some situations.
Two types of voting. A very cumbersome method of making decisions is called a pure democracy. This is when everyone votes. This takes time, is cumbersome to count the votes and avoid fraud, and usually does not work because most people are simply not well enough informed to make the best decisions. Advantages are that it includes everyone, literally.
The other type of voting is called representative democracy. Here the general public or all the members of a group or company elect leaders, and then the leaders make the decisions – either by consensus or themselves by voting on issues. This is much better, and of course is the method used in all democratic governments on earth.
It is slower, however, and can be very cumbersome. It also leaves some people unhappy as they are part of the losing side of the vote. Voting on important matters also opens up the possibility that less competent people will make important decisions. This is the case, for example, at the United Nations, in which some small, violent nations actually sit on the Human Rights subcommittee that decides who is terrorist or violent one. It does not work well for this reason at the UN.
2. Decision by consensus. This is cumbersome, but not if one elects a council, perhaps, and it is only composed of say, eight or ten members. Then reaching a consensus is not impossible and need not take weeks or months. The Native Americans, for example, organized councils of elders who made decisions by consensus. This is a way to include many people in a decision, offend no one, and remove a competitive and confrontative way of doing things that occurs with voting.
Consensus is used often in some businesses in which the “team” model is used. The team is a group of experts who often represent different departments or specialties within the business such as advertising, production, distribution, packaging, etc. They do not move forward until all members of the team can agree to a plan. They know that if they do not gain a consensus, things are not likely to work out well.
Consensus and consensus building is also used in politics, for example in the Congress of the United States. Here the reasons are a little different, however. Members know that they will need the votes and support of their colleagues in the future. This often makes them willing to compromise in the present to essentially build up some good will for the future. This is actually somewhat corrupt, but it is how the political idea of consensus often, though not always works.
Another aspect of consensus is that if one member is unhappy, then the others must assist him or her to come to a decision. This is very different from voting or a top-down hierarchical decision-making process in which basically the superior does not care what those below think. This is somewhat dangerous, of course, especially in the military and elsewhere, but it is the way things are done in many cases. So consensus is actually a fascinating way of making decisions when it is made feasible and done correctly.
Some groups have evolved procedures called small group processes to help them come to decisions quickly inform the council members of the real issues, and handle disagreements and conflicts without wasting hours and causing disruption. The key to these small group processes is that all council members must agree on the rule, and abide by them. When a conflict or block arises, they must follow procedures to resolve it within a framework of discussion, breaking into smaller groups, asking for clarification and questions, giving feedback, and so on. When this is done rigorously, it works amazing well and is used in some corporations, for example, and other large organizations. Setting time limits for speaking, and following the rules exactly, assure all council members that the process will move along and not become bogged down in idle talk, debate, vitriol, or ego fighting. This was tried in the US Congress in the early days. It worked well if members stuck to the rules, but unfortunately most of the members of Congress were not trained in small group process and could not abide by the rules, so it was abandoned, unfortunately. The only surviving relic is the committee system, which is part of all small group process theory to facilitate decision-making.
3. A republican form of rule. This is an interesting hybrid type between a democracy and a pure hierarchy. In a hierarchy, the ruler or those at the top make all the rules and regulations. In a pure democracy, there are not rules, except those voted upon by the people or members of the group. Neither method works too well today.
A hybrid is called a republic. It is also called the rule of law. This is to be contrasted with the rule of men, which includes a democracy and a hierarchy. In a republican form of decision making, the basic rules of conduct and the rules for making major decisions are spelled out ahead of time and written down for all to see. The leaders, who are often, but not always elected democratically, or perhaps are appointed or chosen by a board of directors, are then charged with making the decision, but always in accordance with the fixed laws and rules of the organization. So, for example, in the United States, every lawmaker in every state and jurisdiction is required to take an oath to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America”. In other words, they are not free to do as they like. They are bound by another document or set of rules.
This hybrid system works about the best of any that have been devised on earth, for which reason it continues in the United states and in a few other nations that have consitutitons, which are essentially contracts between the people and their government, setting down the rights and powers given to the government, and those reserved to the states, local municipalities, and/or the people.
Unfortunately, today, in the USA and elsewhere, the original Constitutions have been misinterpreted and twisted to serve various policital purposes. As a result, the decisions made by legislatures have become twisted, as well. Today, the tea party movement, for example, is calling for a return to the original guiding principles of the US constitution, and hopefully people will listen and vote in candidates who truly understand the original intent, which was a far more free society without a welfare state or what is called a Nanny state or “big brother” government looking over everyone’s shoulder all of the time.
Advantages are combining the principles of a wise hierarchy with the inclusiveness of a democratic process. Disadvantages are that the rules can become corrupted, and the voting members can also just ignore the rules or laws, although they do so at their own risk, since they are sworn to uphold the laws. The former has occurred in the USA, while the latter occurred and occurs in most other nations with Constitutions. The lawmakers simply ignore the written constitution or find loopholes in it, and then do what they like. However, at least it is a control mechanism on the committees, and on the leadership.
4. Decision by committees. This is related to consensus and to hierarchies. However, it is a kind of hybrid. It does not work too well simply because the committee is given too much power and does not necessarily represent the people affected by the decision. The best way it is used in the US Congress, for example, is to hold hearings to gather information. This is a good use of a committee. Decision by committee, however, which was used extensively in the old Soviet Union and other communist nations, generally fails miserably. The committee members are not experts in their field, cannot agree, at times, and often play politics instead of sticking to the task at hand. They are often corrupt, stupid and incompetent, in fact, and chosen not for their brilliance but for political reasons. This is the problem with this system of decision-making.
5. The team approach. This differs from the committee approach in that the team is made up of representatives of various fields of expertise, and given the task to work together. It is often less politically motivated, though not always. The team approach has been embraced by many companies and is working well. There is still a hierarchical structure that rules the company, but at some levels, and for some tasks such as production and distribution of goods and services, teams do a much better job than old fashioned hierarchies, for example.
6. The enlightened leader approach. This differs from a hierarchy only in that the leader is not a strong man or ‘company man’, but rather is someone whom everyone respects and looks up to in the community, for example.
The enlightened leader in ancient days was usually a religious leader, a shaman, a priest, a warrior whom people respect, or perhaps a philosopher like a Socrates. It could be a king or queen, but only if the person is really loved and admired by most people.
This method can work, especially if the one chosen as leader really is enlightened. However, if suffers from all the problems of the old hierarchies. These are that the leader may be incompetent, corrupt, stupid, or just ignorant. This then leads to improper decisions that cannot be reversed easily and so the entire society suffers and is often lost.