Hierarchy, High Pressure & Risk

Why leaders might need to temper the use of authority in high-risk situations.
WHEN THE PRESSURE’S ON, does hierarchy help or hinder a group’s success? It does both, according to a study from researchers at Columbia Business School in New York City and INSEAD’s campus in Fontainebleau, France.

Eric Anicich of Columbia, Roderick Swaab of INSEAD, and Adam Galinsky, also of Columbia, analyzed data pertaining to 30,625 Himalayan climbers from 56 countries who collectively went on 5,104 expeditions over the past 100 years. They found that strong hierarchical structures helped improve coordination and organization, as well as reduce conflict, among groups of climbers. “A strong hierarchy can help expeditions reach the top of the mountain: Like the symphonic movement of a beehive, hierarchy helps the group become more than the sum of its parts,” Swaab says.

However, hierarchy is a double-edged sword. When climbers came from countries with very strong hierarchical cultures, their groups not only achieved more success—they also suffered more fatalities.

When hierarchy is too strong, it can prevent lower-ranking team members from reporting signs of trouble, and their silence can lead to catastrophe. Among climbers, it can lead to increased fatalities; in organizations, to unnecessary risk. “The key to finding the right balance in a hierarchy is identifying the barriers that keep lower-ranking team members from voicing their perspectives and providing them with opportunities for empowerment, like owning a task or having authority over a specific initiative,” says Galinsky. Leaders also should make clear that they welcome input from those they lead.

“Hierarchical cultural values predict success and mortality in high-stakes teams” appeared in the February 3, 2015, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.