Matrixed Work, Authority & Hierarchy

I recently posted this to an OD group:

I wrote this in the middle of the night last night, not specifically as a response to this string, but it is relevant.

I was actually stimulated by my search, with the help of my father and my brother, for the source of the quote my father has been attributing to John Dewey for decades: “There is not freedom without structure.”

Great quote, but as far as I can tell it was actually a paraphrase by my father of Dewy and Kurt Lewin that morphed over time in his brain into a quote of Dewey lol. The brain is a tricky thing…although if one of has evidence that Dewey actually said it, let me know!

Here is what I wrote, that at least feels like a bit of an epiphany for me (although consistent with how I have been thinking all along):

There is no freedom without structure. You need structure to play a game. No rules, no game. You need structure to run an organization. If you think hierarchy is the problem, think again. Hierarchy isn’t the problem. Issues are the problem. Authority issues, trust issues, ego issues, misalignment issues, etc. People will have issues with or without hierarchy. Without it, they will have chaos and issues.

By “hierarchy” I mean any boss-subordinate structure, within multiple layers or only one…certainly any structure where the boss has the formal authority to fire the subordinate.

People within such structures are often interdependent cross-functionally in their work, i.e., “matrixed” (always have been, always will be). I think there is a lot of confusion caused when people mix anti-hierarchy anti-authority values into matrixed work and fail to leverage the actual hierarchical reporting relationships. Project teams are a prime example, although this goes on in daily operations as well. The project team often consists of a project manager and a number of people who do not actually report to the project manager (they only have a “dotted line” to the project manager). If alignment for the work isn’t created layer by layer within the actual hierarchical reporting structure, the project team members will get pulled in other directions by the priorities their actual bosses have for them. It’s a lot easier to create cross-functional alignment by working with the hierarchy versus pretending it doesn’t matter. When there is misalignment people tend to deal with it with their reptilian brains…by acting bossy (fight)…or acting passive (flight). Whether a project team or not, working across functions requires ongoing dialogue to keep silos and attachments to groups from hardening and inhibiting performance…imho.

With that in mind, I think an effective hierarchy can function in any environment.

And from the introduction to my new book, Leadership Can Be Learned (due out in Oct 2017!):

An equally important premise of this book is that everybody has authority issues. It is part of the human condition. Everybody starts life totally dependent on the adults caring for them, and our beliefs, emotions, and behavioral habits regarding authority are forged in that early experience.

Despite this universal presence of authority relationships in human families and institutions, many people go through life in denial, or at least unaware, of their biases about authority. Even those teaching and writing about leadership (including me) have authority issues. Many in my profession, organization development, have advocated for decades for flat organizations, “self-organizing” organizations, leaderless teams, “servant leadership,” “upside down” organizations and a plethora of other approaches seeking a cure for the conflicts, convoluted communication, and inefficiencies that often emerge between leaders and subordinates. Tom Peters, as just one prominent example, in his bestselling In Search of Excellence heaped praise on the Uddevalla Volvo plant for opening its doors with leaderless teams. The same year that his book was published, sadly, the plant had to shut its doors due to low productivity/high cost production.

This is not to say that you can’t make flat structures work. However, to do so, you have to have clear eyed clarity about authority. You have to know who will decide what, how, and by-when, and you need everyone as aligned as possible in support of the authority structure in your system. You also need clarity about human systems. Starting with yourself, you must lead towards a high performance culture. Without such clarity, even in the simple structure of a hierarchy, you will have chaos.

Edwin Friedman’s leadership model, in my opinion, is superior precisely because it takes our authority issues into account, and guides each person in how to adjust and continually become a more effective and mature leader.

Leadership can be learned because although there is art to leadership there is also science. With this text you will gain a new understanding of human systems and of how to improve yourself and improve the system you are in. High performance culture and high performance leadership are mirror images of each other. Once you grasp the principals, the key will be in your hands.


About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
This entry was posted in Alignment, Change Management, Cross-Functional Work, Leadership, Matrixed Work, Organization Development, Systems Thinking, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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