Three Principles To Redefine Hierarchy

What are five jobs that you have respect or gratitude for, but could never do yourself?

I hate airport bathrooms in general, but imagine what an airport bathroom would be like if there were no janitors or no plumbers, or no truck drivers to deliver the soap and paper towels (or no managers to hire janitors or to ensure that the airport is well staffed). We all have our roles and jobs, and each of us takes benefit from each other's contribution and impact of those contributions. 

When it comes to if hierarchy should have a place in organizations today there two polarized opinions: one side says to remove it from existence as it’s old-school and newer models should prevail; the other claims hierarchy is a requirement for work to be completed. Scrolling through Harvard Business Review, business publications or blogs, one can find lots on the subject on both sides of the argument.

But what if there’s a third option? Rather than throwing hierarchy out altogether, or kept it as we know it today, what if we reframed it to work better for us all?

Oxford Dictionary defines a hierarchy as: "A system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority.”


What if hierarchy existed with these principles:


  1. Lead (at all levels) from respect and ditch “power plays” | Job shaming exists because people think they’re above certain jobs. I see that those wishing to ditch hierarchy from our workplaces want to do so to lose the “status” part of the definition. A hierarchy can exist when those within it ditch ego, status plays and pulling rank and create basic respect for all and the role that each person fills. I do work that I know my boss shouldn't have to be bothered with - he has to run the company. I also escalate promptly when I see that he needs information to do his job well or to mitigate risk to the organization. Respect the chair you fill, respect the chair your people fill and leverage that respect to lead irrespective of where you are on the hierarchy.

  2. Honour the interconnectedness and interdependence | This week, when dropping my husband Peter off at work, I watched him greet and wave at the person there first thing every morning to hose off the sidewalk in front of his office and clean the storefront. Why is this significant? Peter is accountable for Brand in his role, some attributes of the brand include being best in class, detail-oriented, quality, thoughtfulness and professionalism. Having a beautifully clean office in a chaotic downtown centre contribute to those brand attributes and create an office space that he and his colleagues are proud to work at. Look for the interconnectedness and dependence that you have on the jobs that other people fill, then share your gratitude or recognition of your reliance on them.

  3. Decouple a person’s identity from their job | We are all human beings, and our identity is so much more than where we work, what we do, or where we are on some internal hierarchy. I’ve adopted the philosophy that my friend Brian Peterson taught me, “people don’t own projects, projects own people.” In other words, ditch the hierarchy norms and leverage the strengths, passions and goals of each to propel project work for what the project needs, not what the hierarchy or org chart says. 


The print artist Anthony Burrill has it right “Work Hard & Be Nice To People.” It’s up to us to create a hierarchy where collaboration, gratitude for each other’s jobs, grounded in respect for the humans you work and interact with.


If you redefined hierarchy in this way, what would become possible on your team or in your organization?

Special thanks to my good friend Jeramiah Morris for his contribution to this post.