In a world where a junior staffer can tweet to the CEO, the lines that traditionally delineated power and influence have been blurred. So much so, in fact, that when Jeffrey Pfeffer teaches about corporate America’s hierarchical power structure, his students often push back. That model of power isn’t relevant anymore, they insist. Such 20th-century thinking.
Pfeffer’s students are largely millennials—the youngest generation now in the workforce, born between about 1980 and 1992. He says that they, like much of the media, think the traditional power structure in business is changing and that companies are becoming more dynamic and less hierarchical.
They’re wrong. “There’s this belief that we are all living in some postmodernist, egalitarian, merit-based paradise and that everything is different in companies now,” he says. “But in reality, it’s not.” In fact, in a new paper that explores the notion that power structures haven’t changed much over time, Pfeffer explains that the way organizations operate today actually reflects hundreds of years of hierarchical power structures, and remains unchanged because these structures “can be linked to survival advantages” in the workplace. The beliefs and behaviors that go along with them, he writes, are ingrained in our collective, corporate DNA.
Why do traditional power structure have such staying power? One reason is that hierarchies still work. Pfeffer writes that “relationships with bosses still matter for people’s job tenure and opportunities, as do networking skills.” He notes that research shows hierarchies also deliver practical and psychological value, in part by fulfilling deep-seated needs for order and security. Another is that individuals who believe in their own competence and above-average qualities are more likely to take action at work, says Pfeffer. Taking action on the job provides opportunities for success, and success means advancement at the company—including more power and control over others — perpetuating a hierarchical structure.