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Vertical To Horizontal: A New Workplace Reality

Written by Rune Kvist Olsen Saturday, 08 April 2006

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Myths and realities of organizing the workplace

Our contemporary organizations have historically organized the workplace in a vertical and hierarchical manner, as though this type of organization is the only natural way of getting things done. This vertically-oriented reality is based on a belief in domination, control and command, and has provided a powerful source of validation for hierarchical relationships between human beings in organizational life.

The source of control generally refers to some authority from outside the human being that dominates and exerts control over the person by the virtue of the power connected to rank and position. It is usually the power exercised by one person over another person, where the subordinate person is coerced into following the decisions made by the superior person in charge.

As Markus Reihlen1 states in his paper: One major characteristic of hierarchical governing systems is the general decision power a person receives from his or her position in the hierarchy regardless of the expertise the person possesses for solving a given problem. One can be tempted to say that the higher up in the organization's layers we get, the more power (the authority to make decisions based on position and rank) we find and the less competence (problem solving ability) we find. That is because decisions made in the higher levels of the organization are made on the basis of a fair number of assumptions, presumptions and notions, and not so much on the basis of actual knowledge of the matter at hand. This is caused by the long distance between the decision makers and the outside reality of the organization. The lower down in the organizational layers we get, the less power we find and the more competence we find. That is because the decision-making power is concentrated in the top and higher levels and diminishes downward and throughout the organization. Competence in the lower levels however, is based on personal knowledge and experiences caused by the short distance between the people at the bottom and the actual reality they work and live in day after day.

During the last decades the extent and range of human competence (knowledge, skills, abilities, capabilities) in the workplace has grown to immense proportions. The workforce of today has knowledge and abilities that we would have assumed inconceivable just 20-30 years ago. From a logical perspective, we should expect that because of this knowledge revolution, organizational life in the workplace would have adjusted and adapted to this huge development in human competence. We should have good reason to anticipate that the need for control and command of workers would have been reduced parallel to this explosion in knowledge and in intellectual capital. Furthermore we should also have reason to expect that the need to encourage and generate personal freedom from control, would have accelerated at an equivalent rate.

But what has actually happened in this context between the development in human competence and in personal freedom from control? We have regrettably been witnessing quite the opposite actions in regard to the relation between control and freedom in the workplace. It seems that organizations are organizing the workplace as if people know less and less, in spite of the actual fact that people know more and more. Therefore we have been witnessing an enormous development in controlling systems in the workplace, and a corresponding diminution in the movement for personal freedom from control. This state of affairs in the workplace is a great paradox in regard to the relationship between how things are getting done at work (as regular and usual) and the extreme alteration and growth that have taken place in human competence and capabilities during this time. Instead of investing in the liberation of people from the imposed systems of control and command, organizations have continuously been investing in reinforcing, strengthening and tightening the vertical and hierarchical order, with the help of more and more advanced and sophisticated systems of control and command.

A vertical relating structure is known by the more common term "hierarchy". Hierarchies are by their very nature systems of domination, command and control. They are essentially systems and structures of institutionalized domination. They place people in ranks of superiors and inferiors. Positioning some people above others activates primitive drives and steering mechanisms to arrange and legitimize someone's control over others.

Researchers have noted that whenever control, coercion, use of submission and domination in the name of the rank and position occurs, an inhuman relationship evolves between human beings. This relationship inevitably happens when relationships are vertically orientated (hierarchical structured). Hostile and destructive forms of interpersonal relationships are the accumulated results of the circumstance. The researcher David Kipnis2 concludes in his works that when people are given the opportunity to control others (because of the built-in controlling-mechanisms in vertical structures) they will inevitably do so with the intention of both legitimizing their own roles and functions as superiors and maintaining their base as power-holders. Kipnis2 states that power seems to unleash in most people cruel motives to manipulate others. Such condescending and abusive motives emerged even if people did not believe that they existed inside themselves before power over others had been bestowed on them.

By placing people in legitimized ranks and positions of formal authority over others, the vertical power structure and the hierarchical power system tends to bring out the very worst residual drives and primitive personal characteristics in people.

How did domination, control and commanding mechanisms progress along with the development of humanity? How did these authority features become so deeply embedded in our belief-systems, in the mass-consciousness, in human societies and in our organizations? How did human mentality emerge to view life as a vertical reality and consequently lead human beings to relate to one another in a dominating, controlling, and commanding manner as superiors and inferiors?

We have, for example, used our language to cover up for this non-equal treatment of fellow human beings in the sense that we have felt the necessity to transform terms in our vocabulary from uncomfortable words like control and command, to more acceptable words such as influence, leadership and empowerment. However, the essence remains. The vertical order in our society and the hierarchical power-structure in our workplaces have been a reality for centuries and are our reality right now.

That is because they are viewed as sacred or a natural order in which to arrange relations between people, and rank people according to their positions in their organizations. The formal authorities in our societies and in our organizations are given the authority to exercise their domination, their control and commanding power over their subordinates in the name of this vertical and hierarchical order. The use of the idea of someone above to control someone below in the name of the vertical order, have promoted the development of primitive dispositions in the workplace through the authorization of people in charge. The belief that not everyone is able to take responsibility for his or her own actions in the workplace, is an excuse to take control over others by commanding them.

The consequences of vertical structures and hierarchical systems in organizational life are the destruction of human dignity and personal freedom and are, in the end, the main cause of the dehumanizing of human relations. The creative contributions of all persons in the vertical order are an impossible option because of the suppressive and oppressive mechanisms that are built into the vertical ranking in the workplace, and are expressed in the form of relations between individuals above and individuals below - from the sense that some are more trustworthy than others to ranks and positions.

"I am tired of being told what to do by others". This statement is illustrative of the underlying thoughts and feelings of many people as subordinates who are considered inferior persons in the hierarchical context. They are subordinates based on their inferior rank and title, and do not therefore deserve the same privileges, advantages, respect, freedom and trust as their superiors. This pronouncement is a profoundly expressed reaction from a human being submitted to domination, control and command, and it is obvious that the person has become immensely tired of the whole situation.

Regaining control over our own lives and our own situations in the workplace will require some fundamental alterations in our belief-systems. It will require the transformation from a vertically reality (hierarchical) in the workplace to a horizontal (egalitarian) reality at work. Such change will mean a shift from a belief-system of domination, controlling and commanding others, to a belief-system of personal freedom and mutual trust. In this context, the term "egalitarian" means relating to each other as fellow human beings, as equals, as peers, as individuals who deserve respect because of our nature as unique individual human beings who have the capabilities and abilities to take responsibility for their own actions.

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