Order in a Messy World

Writer: 
December 11, 2014

In today’s casual, open-plan office where teamwork and flexibility are prized, hierarchy is often seen as too rigid, a Mad Men-like relic as productive as a threemartini lunch. But according to research from Aaron Kay, associate professor of management at Fuqua, employees may actually perform better in more traditionally structured organizations.

“Hierarchy can be full of injustice,” Kay says. “But for some tasks and goals, people are better able to do their jobs in that environment than a more egalitarian set-up.”

In a paper published in the June issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kay and his collaborators tested the compensatory control theory, which states that people prefer environments they perceive to be structured and orderly rather than random or chaotic, to find out how it might apply to the workplace.

Through a series of experiments, Kay and his fellow researchers found that when an individual’s sense of personal control is reduced, he or she craves hierarchy in external circumstances. This held true even for those subjects who described equality as a more fair workplace model than a hierarchy.

That doesn’t mean that a conventional top-down power structure will necessarily boost productivity and reduce employee turnover, warns Kay. “People who work in a hierarchical workplace lacking in procedural justice often end up feeling like they have less control,” he says. “If people feel the hierarchy is arbitrary and unfair, the benefits quickly disappear.”

  • Louise Flynn is the associate editor at Duke Magazine.