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Erin Medlyn

Duke University
The Fuqua School of Business
100 Fuqua Drive
P.O. Box 90120
Durham, NC 27708-0125

Tel +1.919.660.8090

erin.medlyn@duke.edu

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Research: Despite Conventional Wisdom, Most Workers Want a Boss

Professor Aaron Kay finds hierarchical workplaces give employees a better sense of control.

August 06, 2014

Many people claim they want more equality at work. They argue they are tired of hierarchy and having to follow orders. Instead, many workers advocate a team environment where everybody contributes to making decisions. However, Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor Aaron Kay found in recent research that despite what people say, they function better in a company with a strong hierarchy.

Kay, along with his collaborators, studied something called compensatory control theory, which says that people want to see the world as orderly and structured. The theory also says that personal and external sources of control—like a structured workplace—help promote the belief that the world is orderly.   

The researchers applied the theory to a series of experiments to determine if it held true in the workplace. The group discovered that when a person’s sense of control is reduced, he or she craves a workplace with a hierarchy because it is seen as more orderly and structured, and helps return a sense of control.

The group showed this in one case by having 172 participants read articles that described the economy as uncontrolled or the world as being random. Then the researchers measured the participants’ desire for hierarchy in the workplace by asking them questions such as "In a business, it’s important for one person to make final decisions,” or, “Businesses are most effective when there are a few people who have the influence to get things done.” They found that the subjects who read the articles were more likely to agree with the statements. They also found in other experiments that hierarchies promote a sense of effectiveness when compared to an egalitarian workplace.

Despite these findings, the researchers aren’t necessarily saying that hierarchy is superior to a more egalitarian workplace.

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

Kay said a workplace with a hierarchy must be well organized for the individuals to get the benefits, and he cautioned considerations of justice and fairness do play an important role. The researchers warn that management must make decisions considered fair by workers or the employees will suffer psychologically.

“People who work in a hierarchical workplace lacking in procedural justice often end up feeling like they have less control. If people feel the hierarchy is arbitrary or unfair, the benefits quickly disappear.”

The paper, Seeking structure in social organization: Compensatory control and the psychological advantages of hierarchy was published in the June issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Aaron Kay is an associate professor of management, psychology and neuroscience at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.