The impotence of hierarchy

Want to know a secret? There is this recurrent fear that many people in leadership positions told me about: “Now that I am in this position, I fear that people around me won’t speak their mind anymore, that they won’t dare criticising me. For all I know, they might think I am a fool but never tell me.” I think the first time it was my PhD supervisor who told me, and he even told me that this was also the worst fear of his supervisor. So there is a chain of fear passed on down the line. If I ask my students to be frank, I could also add that my supervisor … It’s a bit of a sad story, because we know how it goes. Back in the day, I wasn’t very open to my supervisor, and the times I tried, I often regretted it. – These fears are woven into the fabric of our hierarchies. Understandable as they might be, they are dangerous. The can preclude open discussion and correction. Given that I’m spending much of my time in universities, I am struck by how often I encounter this. In what follows, I’d like to look at a few instances and ask whether there are any remedies.

Before walking through some examples, let’s begin by looking at the phenomenon. Power imbalance is often portrayed as unidirectional state. The boss or supervisor has power; the employees or students dependent on the boss fear the boss. But as I see it, the fear has a reciprocal structure: You are afraid to criticise your boss because he or she might reproach you for doing so. Knowing your fear, the boss is afraid that you will hide your criticisms. This might spiral into a number of refined and uncomfortable assumptions. “I’ll rather tell him something nice about himself.” – “She only said that because she wants to divert attention from her criticism.” – “He doesn’t take me seriously.” – “She doesn’t take me seriously.” Mutual mistrust might follow.* If this kind of setting is large enough, the mistrust might translate into full-blown conspiracy theories. But I think the problem, at root, is not the hierarchy itself. The problem is that we often treat a hierarchical position as a personal rather than an institutional feature. But your boss is not your boss because he or she is a better whatever, but because the design of our institutions requires this function.** In this sense, hierarchy is owing to ways of dividing labour. However, while some contexts might require hierarchical division of labour, certain processes cannot function in the presence of hierarchy. Collective deliberation, for instance, is not possible if someone in the collective intervenes qua greater power. If my thoughts are taken to carry more weight because I’m a professor rather than a student, then we do not need any discussion. Or do we? Let’s look at some instances then:

  • Deliberation in science. – It’s often noted that the current corona crisis makes our shortcomings obvious. So let’s begin with policy design in the corona crisis. Given the complexity of the problems in this crisis, you would expect that decision makers listen to a number of voices. But in the Netherlands, for instance, the opposite seems to be true: “There is no discussion … Because there is a crisis, it is not allowed to have a discussion.” These are the words of Microbiologist Alex Friedrich. Rather than following the guidelines of the government, he caused quite some stir by speaking up against the Dutch strategy and partly changed the course of action by demanding more testing in the north. His point is that scientific advice is too hierarchical and focused on too few voices. Instead, it should be run like a “jam session” where everyone speaks up. I guess you don’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate the fact that you are more likely to hit on crucial facts when you listen to as many people and disciplines as possible. But the example shows that collective deliberation is still obstructed rather than enhanced (see also here).
  • Transitions in the university. – Borrowing a quote from a British colleague, the president of our university recently noted that implementing change in universities were like ‘reorganising a graveyard: “You don’t get much support from the inside”.’ The idea seems to be that changes like the current transitions to online teaching require an “external shock”. While shock might indeed be an occasion for change, I think that the comparison to the graveyard has clear limitations. I doubt that successful transition works without calling on the employees who actually do the implementing. So when we plan the details of this transition, I am sure our success will depend on whether we will listen carefully to the experiences and insights “the inside” has to offer. Indeed, the digital infrastructure that we now rely on increasingly provides great tools to implement change with the necessary transparency and participation of everyone involved. Sometimes this comes with comic relief: At the mercy of advanced technology, hierarchies of seniority are quickly turned upside down.
  • Hierarchy in teaching. – As I have noted earlier, my status as a professor should not enhance the status of what I have to say. And yet we all know that when I enter the lecture hall, the institutional powers put me in a special position, whether we like it or not. The fact that I am grading the very students who might criticise me seems to settle the intellectual hierarchy, too. Can this be evaded? Should it be? As I see it, the hierarchical power of professors over students is limited to the educational tasks they set within the institutional setting they share. I can give you a task and then tell to what extent you solved it well, whether you drew on all relevant resources etc. But an educational task, to be dealt with in an exam or essay, is different from the complex problems that confront us. Once we go beyond the confinement of exercises, students are fellow philosophers and citizens, where hierarchy should no longer apply. For the reasons noted above, the hierarchy might still be effective. But it is to our detriment if we allow it to happen.

Hierarchy, taken as a personal trait, then, obstructs true deliberation, diversity and learning. In an ideal setting, archangels could openly learn from the devil’s criticism. That said, it’s hard to figure out how we can evade the traps and fears that hierarchies foster. But we should be weary whenever discussion is closed with reference to hierarchical position. It harms all sides, those with more and less powers. But of course it’s hard to bypass something so deeply ingrained in our system. Yet, if someone politely asks you to shut up and listen, it might be best to go along and listen. In the same vain, those with more power should seek, not shun, advice from everyone. Acquiring knowledge and finding solutions, even if governed by good methods, is an accidental and collective process. You might have no idea what you’re missing. So keep asking around and encourage others. It’s always an institution, not you, that grants the power over people. The more power you exercise over them, the more likely it is that people refrain from telling you uncomfortable truths.

____

* A perfect illustration is Paul Watzlawick’s “Story of the Hammer”.

** However, one might doubt whether hierarchies really obtain because of a functional division of labour. The economist Stephen Marglin famously argues that “the capitalist organization of work came into existence not because of superior efficiency but in consequence of the rent-seeking activities of the capitalist.” (I wish to thank Daniel Moure for pointing me to the work of Marglin, especially to the seminal paper “What do bosses do?”)

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