Hierarchies vs. Personal Health and Social Productivity

Open Culture recently republished some interesting research on stress and its effect on people’s lives. The major point of the piece is that the higher you are in the hierarchy at work or the social strata, the better your health will be. The study shows that this is not because you have greater access to better health care. Personal agency and control of one’s life were the greatest predictor. You are much less likely to have high blood pressure and risk of diabetes and stroke if you are the top boss or wealthy.

You can get the details from the video, an embedded copy of the 2008 National Geographic documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer. The study included baboons and humans and focused down to the cellular level.

The idea of social status dictating stress risks is so far outside the consideration of my doctor — and I’ll bet yours also — as to mean that they are likely treating the wrong things. My friend, the brilliant entrepreneur Annalie Killlian, who is with AMP, called my attention to the piece. In the last minute of the film, there are a few very short references to making work places more conducive to each person’s feeling a bit of control. A “business person,” speaking to the implications for employers, suggests that bosses make work less stressful by promoting involvement, and even give people better rewards for their work. In addition to thoughts about my own risks and steps I should take to reduce them, I had several reactions to this set of ideas for businesses.

It was outrageous that the man making the suggestions never saw the conflict in his two suggestions — involvement with a little control and reward for work. A bit of involvement may produce some small sense of personal agency, but the promise of rewards puts a person at the mercy of someone else’s approval — or not — a contrarian approach to producing personal agency. Based on the findings of the study, it would actually increase stress. If a business is serious about fostering personal agency, they need to put a stop to rewards from “others.”

My second thought was, that it just added ammunition to my business — almost forty years of designing work systems to function like improvisational jazz groups, within which there are no hierarchies. It explains further why there is more creativity and risk taking in improvisational work systems, along with expectation for rewards from customers rather than from bosses. I have been designing and instilling health-producing work systems my entire career, but I hadn’t made that association before I saw the video.

I knew that internal locus of control, through which people feel in charge of outcomes, made them happy and even healthier. But I did not know why until this video. If you want to read the idea of how jazz systems work, buy a copy of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success, published by Jossey Bass. Or if you own it, look at Chapter Five, pages 102–104 in the hard bound edition. The core idea is that a business’s people serve the customer and other stakeholders, rather than perform for the leader of the company, who in this model plays the role of band leader. Responding to the audience, like a jazz ensemble in performance, creates much greater flexibility and accountability.

Third, the research proved that when there are no bosses everyone is healthier. There is no counterargument for hierarchy. Hierarchies are outdated, remnants of our pre-evolution times. We need to design our way out of them. When groups of baboons and humans have no bosses, they function better, live longer, are more productive, and are able teach others who enter their tribes to work collaboratively. There is no upside to hierarchy whatsoever.

The social innovation part is that workers are not only more innovative and creative; they are healthier, which lowers health care costs and makes families more secure. There is even a selfish side: workers are more productive. Now, in the light of this instructive and inspiriting research, managers and bosses simply have to overcome their resistance to removing hierarchies.

Originally published at carolsanford.com on August 27, 2012.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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