c. How Organisations and Hierarchies Emerge

How Organisations and Hierarchies Emerge

The Nature of Organisations

In this discussion, “organisation” is a generic term. It means any formal or informal group of individuals who interact, co-operate, have a common culture, a common purpose, and carry out communal activities at any scale.

This common purpose may be:

  1. To yield benefits for the organisation itself.
  2. To yield benefits for other external individuals or organisations.
  3. A combination of the two. Because an organisation must maintain itself, it is never entirely altruistic. However, because it requires inputs to function, it is normally co-operative. This involves a process of negotiation and agreement.
  4. To yield disbenefits for other individuals or organisations. If this is the purpose of an organisation, then it is normally part of a larger one which benefits from this behaviour.

Because an organisation must maintain itself and its function, its purpose cannot be disbenefits for itself. However, this does not prevent an organisation from harming itself in error. Nor does it prevent a sub-organisation from harming it.

Benefits are, of course, the satisfaction of needs and the avoidance of contra-needs. In the case of individuals, these needs are for existence and procreation, kin relatedness, non-kin relatedness and growth. Their contra-needs are any failures of these. In the case of organisations, their needs are to maintain and operate their processes, and to produce the outputs, for which they were established. Their contra-needs are any failures of these processes and outputs.

Organisations fulfil their purpose by satisfying their own needs, avoiding their own contra-needs, and as outputs, providing satisfiers and contra-satisfiers for others. Resources may also be necessary to fulfil an organisation’s purpose. If so, a process is needed to turn the necessary resources into sufficient satisfiers, or ways of avoiding contra-satisfiers. This process can be carried out either by the organisation itself, or by another individual or organisation. Thus, an organisation will either:

  1. acquire, from another individual or other organisation, ready-made satisfiers, or ways of avoiding contra-satisfiers, or
  2. acquire the necessary resources from another individual, organisation, or elsewhere in its environment, and process them.

How Organisations Emerge

There are several steps in the emergence of an organisation. These are described in the diagram and text below.

Motivator. Motivators are defined as perceived opportunities to benefit oneself and/or others, and perceived risks of dis-benefits to oneself and/or others. Organisations arise from the decision-making processes of one or more individuals. Each will have recognised the same motivator, prioritised it, and concluded that action is required. Each will also have assessed the options for action, and will have concluded that they lack the resources to carry it out alone.

Individual Response. Each individual may then decide that the motivator is something beyond their control. Alternatively, they may decide to adopt a problem-solving approach, and either join an existing organisation, or form a new one to deal with it collectively.

Communication and Assembly. If the affected individuals adopt a problem-solving approach, they will contact and communicate with one another. If they assemble, either formally or informally, then this creates an organisation.

There are interactions between the following stages, and they normally progress in parallel.

Belief System. The members of the organisation debate the motivator, either formally or informally. Ultimately, they either create or adopt a belief system which, correctly or incorrectly, explains the motivator and how they hope to address it.

Hierarchy. Owing to the principal of requisite hierarchy, a social hierarchy emerges within the organisation. Each level in the hierarchy is known as a stratum. Those in a higher stratum have greater social status and control over the activities of the organisation than those in lower strata.

Organisation. The organisation structures itself and the processes necessary for it to carry out its intended function. This structure comprises sub-organisations with specific delegated responsibilities, a command sub-organisation, and a system of communication between them.

Function. At some stage, the states of organisation, hierarchy and belief are sufficient for an organisation to begin carrying out its intended function.

Any of the final four stages, i.e., belief system, hierarchy, and organisation formation, as well as actual function, can result in motivators for others. For example, individuals and organisations will generally attempt to obtain a satisfier with the least expenditure of their own resources. This may pose a threat to others. Thus, other organisations which pre-exist or become established, may act in competition or opposition.

I will discuss the various steps in this process in more detail, one by one in the articles which follow. I will then move on to discuss how organisations sustain themselves and how, ultimately, they collapse.

a. An Introduction to Organisations

An Introduction to Organisations

To carry out communal activities at any scale, we form what I will describe, generically, as “organisations”. These are formal or informal groups of individuals that have their own culture and purpose. They can be religious, political, economic, or have some other function.

All human organisations are self-maintaining systems. As an organisation comes into existence and develops, so too does a hierarchy within it. For the organisation to function efficiently and effectively, its members must specialise. This, in turn, requires the co-ordination of their activities. For example, a typical commercial enterprise comprises a managing director followed by directors, senior managers, middle managers, junior managers, and ordinary employees. A typical religion might be organised with a god at the top, followed by “his representative on earth”, and so on down to the lay population. Such hierarchies exist everywhere in society, albeit with different names for the various strata, and we take this for granted.

However, the type of hierarchy in an organisation depends on the extent to which it relies on leadership or power for control. A person with leadership attributes gains high status by virtue of skills in directing a group of individuals to an agreed common goal. Generally, these skills are recognised by the subordinates, and the leader’s status is held with their consent. On the other hand, a person with power attributes has skills in directing a group of individuals to a goal set by him, her or those above. He or she does not necessarily hold their status with their subordinates’ consent. Individuals in a hierarchy generally hold a combination of both attributes, each manifesting to a greater or lesser degree. Unfortunately, there has been a history of power masquerading as leadership, and the term “leader” is used to describe both those who exercise power and those who exercise genuine leadership. In this series of articles, I will, therefore, use the terms “highest status”, “high status”, “low status”, “lowest status”, “senior” and “junior” when referring to the members of a hierarchy.

Control and adaptation mechanisms in an organisation or sub-organisation depend on the highest status individuals receiving information from those of lower status and issuing instructions to them. The balance of leadership and power attributes can vary from organisation to organisation and from sub-organisation to sub-organisation. It is normally a reflection of the attributes of its highest status members and can become entrenched as a culture.

In the same way as systems, all organisations contain sub-organisations and are part of yet larger ones. A commercial organisation, for example, may comprise departments and teams. It may also belong to a sector, i.e., a group of commercial organisations with similar purpose. Thus, organisations are themselves structured hierarchically. An outline of this hierarchy from the top down is:

  • Earth’s Ecology
  • Global Human Organisation
  • Cultural Alliances of Nations
  • Individual Nations
  • National Elites
  • Sectors (both formal and informal)
  • Named Organisations
  • Departments
  • Teams
  • Individuals

The term “organisation” is used generically to describe any one of these.

Organisations exist to facilitate the co-operation of individuals for a common purpose. Usually, they are a means of satisfying the needs and avoiding the contra-needs of a group of individuals. However, their purpose can also be to satisfy the needs and avoid the contra-needs of one or more other organisations. It is also possible for organisations to come into being with the specific purpose of creating contra-satisfiers for others, or to obstruct their satisfiers. So, in the way that it impacts on others, an organisation can be a satisfier or contra-satisfier of a type described by Max Neef.

All organisations are open systems with inputs, processes, and outputs. They have needs and contra-needs. Their needs are to carry out their function and grow, and their contra-needs are an inability to do so. Satisfiers are the inputs and internal organisation necessary for them to carry out their processes. Contra-satisfiers are anything that prevents this.

Organisations interact with one another to provide inputs and outputs. When one organisation provides the outputs needed by another, it is a satisfier of the latter’s needs. However, it can also act as a contra-satisfier, either deliberately or unintentionally. Organisations will also compete with one another for the inputs or resources required to satisfy their needs. These interactions are not necessarily at the same level in the hierarchy of organisations. For example, an individual interacts with a commercial organisation for payment or other benefits in return for his labour. He also interacts with many organisations for products and services in return for money. In general, individuals and organisations will be attracted to organisations they believe will satisfy their needs. A form of risk-benefit-cost analysis is carried out and equitable reciprocation is expected.

Finally, all organisations come into existence, carry out their function for a time, and then either expire or alter their purpose. As I discuss organisations and hierarchies in more detail, I will follow this order.

m. Quality of Implementation of Commands

Quality of Implementation of Commands

Organisations are recursive, i.e., within any organisation there are component organisations. The same is true of the command and subordinate components of an organisation. Thus, within any command component or any subordinate component there are lesser command and subordinate components.  This recursion continues until we arrive at a single individual, and so, every organisation is structured hierarchically. When an individual is a command component they are referred to as a leader. When a subordinate component, they are referred to as a follower. In practice, hierarchies exist throughout human society, and all but a very few individuals are both leader and follower. Thus, when a command is given to a subordinate component it is the command component of that subordinate component, and ultimately an individual, who is responsible for implementing it.

Both the follower and the leader have a complex of needs, and each is looking to the other to help satisfy them. Thus, the leader / follower relationship is negotiated and, if successful, provides emotional benefits to both parties. Some individuals, however, have higher followership tendencies than others. This depends on their genetic inheritance, upbringing, education, and experience. The relative influence of each factor varies from individual to individual. In practice, an understanding of human society is beyond our individual cognitive ability, and so we often simplify. Simplification can involve following a trusted leader, or following a trusted ideology, philosophy, or religion. A high follower tendency can be due to low cognitive skills, or training such as that in an army or domestic service. It can also be due to a high level of trust in the leader, gained from experience or by feedback from one’s peer group. If satisfiers have been identified and exchanged between the follower and the leader to the satisfaction of both, then mutual trust also develops.

If an individual has a high follower tendency, then they will unquestioningly implement commands. However, if they do not, then the process is as follows.

To incentivise the follower, the leader will have offered motivators in return for carrying out their command, or will have threatened motivators in return for not doing so. However, it is the follower’s interpretation of these motivators that is important. Errors can arise in communicating the leader’s offer and, normally, offers of reward are latent, i.e., deferred until completion of the task. These facts can be deliberately exploited by the leader as a rationale for not fulfilling their promise, but this does, of course, diminish the follower’s trust.

To attract followers, the leader will also have displayed a willingness and ability to provide such motivators. The more the follower trusts the leader, the more he will believe these displays. On the other hand, the more he distrusts the leader, the less he will believe them.

If the leader’s motives for issuing the command are self-serving or culturally non-compliant, then he will attempt mitigation strategies. These take the form of false displays of culturally acceptable motivation, explanations, rationales, distractions, etc. They are criticised by the follower and either believed or not. If the follower trusts the leader, then he is more likely to believe them. The follower then compares his beliefs about the command for compliance with the culture in which the organisation operates. For this to be possible the follower must have a cultural schema and an accurate knowledge of that culture.

The more the follower role is wanted, the greater the follower displays their willingness and ability to co-operate. This can take the form of voluntary feedback and displays of support for the leader. The type of leader that people choose to follow depends on the prevailing circumstances, i.e., whether we face an existential threat, a non-existential threat, or there is a period of stability. On the other hand, the less the follower role is wanted, the more they will avoid making such displays, and the more they will avoid placing themselves in a position to receive such commands.

The follower interprets the leader’s command, instruction, request, or implied wish. Such commands can have a positive or negative emotional impact. They are positive if they happen to coincide with action needed to provide the follower with personal satisfiers. Mostly, however, they are negative, require personal effort to implement, and yield no benefit other than positive feedback to the leader.

The promise of reward has a positive emotional impact on the follower. Its magnitude will depend on the relative priority of the follower’s needs at the time. However, the more the follower believes the leader has the will and ability to provide the motivator, the greater the overall benefit. Providing there is an overall benefit, the follower will seek to acquire these rewards by carrying out the leader’s commands. The more the follower benefits in this way, the more he will wish to remain a follower.

Threats of punishment, on the other hand, have a negative emotional impact. The follower will seek to remove them, either by carrying out the leader’s command or, if possible, by ceasing to be a follower. The greater the follower’s belief in the willingness and ability of the leader to implement such threats, and the greater the net disbenefits of following the leader’s commands, the less willing he will be to continue as a follower.

The follower uses a form of emotion-based risk/benefit/cost analysis to assess the overall impact of carrying out the leader’s command, taking the following into account:

  1. The greater the positive emotional impact of acquiring the promised motivators or of avoiding the threatened motivators, the greater the overall benefits.
  2. The greater the follower’s belief in the willingness and ability of the leader to provide those motivators, the greater the overall benefits.
  3. The more the resources available to the follower, and the fewer needed to implement the command, the greater the overall benefits.
  4. The nature of the follower’s peer group also has a part to play. The more compliant it is with the wishes of the leader, the greater the overall benefits.
  5. If the follower accepts that the leader’s motives for issuing the instruction are culturally compliant, this will increase the overall benefits. If the follower does not, then due to the risk of social censure, this will decrease the overall benefits.
  6. Finally, any other risks are taken into account.

A decision is then made based on this analysis. If a course of action has a positive overall emotional benefit, then the command will normally be implemented. If it has a negative one, then it will not. If implementation does not comply with cultural values and norms, then mitigation, in a form borrowed from the leader, will be necessary. The resources required will have been taken into account in the risk/benefit/cost analysis.

The consequences of implementing or not implementing a leader’s command depend on the nature of the command. Clearly, if it is harmful from a utilitarian perspective, then there are benefits to the organisation’s stakeholders in not carrying it out. Not all self-serving or culturally non-compliant commands are harmful in this way, and so these in themselves are not criteria for failing to implement a command. Rather, difficulties arise due to blind followership, a lack of criticism of the leader’s mitigation strategies, and failure to understand the culture and the ethics that underpin its values and norms. Almost without exception, we all have a follower role and a significant part to play in constraining a leader’s excesses. We should therefore treat the role seriously, and develop appropriate skills.