This morning’s New York Times featured a fascinating article on a number of yet unpublished studies on high school bullying called “Web of Popularity, Achieved by Bullying“. Whereas most studies of bullying have previously focused on out-group members, social outliers, and pathological bullies, these studies have tried to determine the extent of bullying within the primary social groups of high school. So, instead of looking at the nerds, geeks, and dweebs, (and the badly adjusted kids who are assumed to victimise them) these studies look at everyone, including popular and moderately popular kids.
What they found seemed to surprise the researchers but shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone with a vivid memory of high school (or parents of teenagers, for that matter). Instead of bullying being focused on out-group members, it seemed to be used primarily as a means gaining and solidifying status in the social hierarchy. Interactions between rivals, kids who were close to each other on the social ladder and who were jockeying for position, were most likely to be aggressive or bullying. When students reached the “top” of the social ladder, they stopped aggressive behaviour not because they were nice people, the researchers hypothesise, but instead because they no longer needed to be agressive to gain position.
While there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the final version of the research, I think there are some substantial implications for the business world. A plurality of the comments under the Times article reflected my first thought: high school actually mirrors much of the business world. Although I’ve had the privilege to work in some very enlightened, very non-aggressive environments, that has by no means been the case everywhere I’ve worked. What’s most interesting in the high school study is the motivation for such aggression and it’s less obvious manifestations (sarcasm, unconstructive criticism, gossip): movement up the social hierarchy. In my experience, that motivation extends into the business world, as well. Workers use these negative tools as ways of climbing or solidifying their places in the often very hierarchical world of business. In a world where your title is a proxy for your value to the company, it’s natural that people would use whatever tools at their disposal to claim those titles, even if the net effect is less trust, less productivity, and less value to the company.
Recent research and case studies suggest that by taking away multiple layers of management and flattening the hierarchy, the incentives for agressive and near-aggressive behaviour are eliminated. Horizontal governance structures, while counter to the corporate tradition of command and control governance, seem to enable trust, productivity, and value creation. While I’m afraid (especially given my own kids’ social struggles in middle school) that there’s not much we can do to eliminate the social hierarchy that kids seem to create all on their own (though I could be/hope I am wrong about that), corporate governance structures are something that are within a firm’s control. More than that, by developing the sort of work environments which foster trust, collaboration, and the development of powerful networks by the elimination of unproductive (or, indeed, counterproductive) hierarchies, firms can become more effective competitors in a world where these are the very qualities that will determine the winners.