We have all come across places and organisations that take a different view on hierarchy. You will have some organisations with a very structured hierarchy, where the bosses are the bosses. They take the decisions. They demand the respect they think they are due and if it is done well, on the other side, they accept their responsibilities and do so in a way that will help the people below them. Who is higher in the hierarchy in such places is a lot of the time defined by the social status of the person, who that person knows, their age, their gender and that kind of characteristics.

On the other side you have organisations for instance with much flatter hierarchies, where people are considered more equal. Decisions are taken by consensus and everybody in a group will take part into that decision-making process. Status within such a group comes from recent achievements. People are encouraged more to show and take initiative and they also hesitate less to delegate tasks to people below them.

The difference between these two sides is usually relatively easy to see. if you just look at who the managers are for instance, in a more equal organisation they tend to be more diverse than in a more hierarchical organisation or society. Whatever your own preference on this continuum between hierarchy and equality, you will need to adapt to it when confronted with a culture different from your own. The only exception would be if you have the power and authority to change it.

Behaviourally it is not very difficult to actually change it. The problem is that usually your preference runs a lot deeper than just behaviours. It is linked to your values and beliefs. For instance, if you prefer a clear hierarchy, you show respect by deferring to this hierarchy. If you prefer equality, that same value of respect will show very differently behaviourally.

I know that all too well. I think I will never be able to fully accept to do something I do not want to do just because somebody above me asks me to do it. However, I also know when I just need to defer to this because it is the accepted norm of the group. I have experienced both sides in the various countries and organisations I worked and lived in.

It is important to adapt to the local expectations, whether you are the boss or subordinate. If you are the boss and act in an equalitarian manner with people expecting a strong hierarchy, you will be seen as not able to take decisions and insecure. If you are a team member who wants to be heard and participate in decisions when not asked to, you will appear as trespassing on authority and being disrespectful. Whatever the scenario, it is a losing situation for you.

Of course, an open discussion will clarify things but at the end it will not change quickly people’s views on that matter. However, it is not an impossible task and many more authoritarian people have learned to become more inclusive of their team members ideas and can see the benefits this can bring.

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