I am fascinated by this idea I picked up from Ken Wilber. It’s not his idea originally, but he is the very best at explaining it in a way that is useful. The idea is that there are dominator hierarchies and actualization hierarchies.
All of nature contains hierarchies, but they are really full of wholes. Every complex organism is really a “holarchy,” each part being a whole on it’s own, all of them combining into something more. Wilber reminds us that atoms make up molecules, molecules make up cells, cells make up organs, organs make up complex, living organisms. In nature, when a cell tries to dominate molecule, or other cells, you have a pathology, like cancer.
Cultures work this way. There are dominator hierarchies and actualization hierarchies. If you’ve worked in either, you easily know the difference by the words themselves.
In a dominator hierarchy, force is used by those at the top of the hierarchy. The people at lower rungs of the hierarchy are a means to end. So they are badgered, bullied, belittled, abused, and treated poorly. In the worst of cases, the people at lower rungs are treated as “the enemy.” In a dominator hierarchy, clients may also be the enemy.
In actualization hierarchies, power isn’t used to drive performance. Instead, the people at levels of the rung work together to determine how to achieve their best performance. They help each other to grow. No one is treated poorly, because they are part of the organism, and it would be wrong (and pathological) to abuse some part of the whole. If you have ever been on a team that functioned well, you know what an actualizer hierarchy feels like.
You may find that there are pockets of each of these types of hierarchies in your organization. You may also find that your clients have pockets of both.
But in a lot of cases, a fish rots from the head, and the dominator hierarchy has taken a deep hold and the organization has a form of cultural cancer.
If you work for a great leader, they will insist on an actualization hierarchy. They will insist that the individuals that make up the whole are all given an opportunity to grow, to develop into the best versions of themselves, and to make their greatest contribution. As each cell becomes stronger, the whole they make up also becomes stronger.
Growth is always better than stagnation. Persuasion is always better than force. Meaningful work is always better than a job. Love is always better than fear.