Hierarchy has its upsides and downsides. A pyramidical power structure works well for day-to-day decision making. But as the distance between the base and the tip of the pyramid increases, tensions between organizational tiers can create obstacles to reform.
It’s a matter of “the unconscious dynamics of humans in groups and systems” rather than a deliberate response, says Renee Rinehart Kathawalla, a postdoctoral research fellow of management at George Mason University.
Not only does the world look very different from the top of a tall hierarchy than it does at the bottom, but the views “higher-ups” and “lower-downs” hold of one another may make it even harder to find common ground. Under normal circumstances, the schism may stay beneath the surface. But when difficult, systemic changes are attempted, it rears its disruptive head.
Kathawalla’s recently published paper in Educational Administration Quarterly, co-written by Jal Mehta of Harvard Graduate School of Education, tracks this phenomenon in action in the U.S. public school system. This research grows out of her experience working for the Department of Education in Tennessee.
“At the time I finished my master’s degree, the Tennessee [Department of Education] had just won the Race to the Top federal funding, and they had all these new policies they were trying to implement," said Kathawalla. "But I didn’t feel like there was a real understanding of these human emotions in how they would really impact the policy implementation.”
Kathawalla's study was designed to explore how emotional responses to hierarchy would affect education reform in different contexts. The researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with 77 people in all—both higher-ups (DOE officials and school district administrators) and lower-downs (school principals, vice-principals and teachers)—across two similar-sized states whose education systems had vastly different cultures. One state was known for imposing consistent, data-driven standards from the top down; the other favored consensus-building and broad-based listening as tools for driving reform.
Surprisingly, despite these different approaches, Kathawalla and Mehta found that both states exhibited the same basic pattern of hierarchical tension. To those on the front lines, top decision-makers appeared removed from the daily realities of teaching, insulated by power and more concerned with politics than educational quality. Even when they seemed to have their eyes on the ball, their perceived detachment directly hampered their ability to inspire and motivate change.
One group of teachers told of a superintendent who, during an emergency meeting about mounting behavioral problems among students, showed a stony affect and prescribed a prefabricated solution without first considering what the teachers had to say. Making matters worse, the superintendent failed to check in with the teachers after they had completed the obligatory training. While the teachers agreed that the superintendent’s willingness to take the meeting was a sign of caring, his demeanor and lack of follow-up nonetheless reinforced the general stereotype that higher-ups lacked empathy and “didn’t get it.”
Looking at higher-ups' interview comments, Kathawalla and Mehta found that the higher-ups avoided overt stereotyping of lower-downs. Though the researchers believe this may have been partly due to cautious self-monitoring, it almost certainly also stemmed from the fact that most of them—more than 90%—had been teachers earlier in their careers. She said that many made continual reference to their personal experience by way of empathizing with the travails teachers face. Others, however, seemed to regard their time in the classroom as more of a prelude to their current role as stewards of the system. The remarks of the latter group were often less focused on shared experience than on the need for teachers to get with the state’s program.
“I think the department’s stand is that we’ll do what’s best for children, and a lot of times that’s not what’s best for teachers,” one leader said.
Like most stereotypes, then, the lower-downs’ unflattering ideas about higher-ups were overly simplistic and arguably, at times, unfair. But the genuine empathy felt by many leaders who were former teachers seemed to fall on deaf ears—with notable exceptions. Specific officials and administrators won the praise of lower-downs for behavior that contrasted the stereotype, thus mitigating its force.
According to the researchers, three qualities raised these higher-ups above the rest in the educators’ esteem: respect, humility, and empathy.
Respect was largely the perceived outcome of a reciprocal relationship in which higher-ups not only were available to lower-downs and sought their feedback, but acted on their ideas and concerns— and told them so. Officials who closed the communication loop, letting lower-downs know precisely how their contributions were being used (and were honest about why they might not get used), radiated respect.
Humility ran counter to the stereotype that higher-ups were out of touch yet believed they knew it all. For example, one teacher singled out a district learning specialist who refrained from giving advice on an issue in her first-grade class until she had a week of comparable classroom experience under her belt. “It was kind of nice to hear that she was like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable answering this until I’m put in your shoes,’" the teacher said.
Empathy was conveyed when leaders made values-based connections with educators, beyond merely referring to their past teaching experience. Higher-ups who showed they were teachers at heart, not bureaucrats, were perceived as more approachable and relatable, more “like us.” Describing some anti-stereotypical administrators in their district office, one group of teachers said, “They don’t sit in an office and push paper by any means…. They still have a very active role in the craft of teaching.”
For Kathawalla, this study demonstrates that even in mission-driven fields such as public education, hierarchical differences can exacerbate deeper human dynamics that get in the way of change and supersede shared values and priorities.
“As an example, most people agree [diversity, equity and inclusion] is important in these different contexts, but it gets interpreted in different ways,” she said. “One of the things that gets in the way of making meaningful progress is that effective change would require really good and genuine efforts at least to take the perspective of people with different views and experiences.”