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Informal hierarchies and team performance

Datum:31 maart 2015
Auteur:Roxana Bucur
Informal hierarchies and team performance
Informal hierarchies and team performance

Formally, current organizations are becoming more and more flat, with team members having equal power or status and no assigned leader (Chenhall, 2008). Regardless of the lack of formal hierarchy, informal hierarchy readily emerges (Bass, 1954; Frauendofer et al., 2014). I will present in more detail this recent article of Frauendofer et al., 2014 with the purpose of illustrating how scholars perceive the connection between informal power hierarchies and group performance. These authors suggest that the emergence of informal hierarchies is beneficial for group performance and that the more power hierarchy within a group corresponds to the task-competence differences of the individual group members, the better the group performs.

Power hierarchy is conceptualized as the relative power differences between group members, and power is defined as the degree to which an individual can influence or control other group members (Halevy, Chou & Galinsky, 2011a; Schmid Mast, 2001). Emergent power hierarchies are characterized in the article of Frauendofer et al. (2014) as hierarchies based on the group member’s perception of each other’s dominance behavior. Perceived dominance is consequently “a measure of power based on the observation and interpretation of other people’s interpersonal behavior”. Empirical evidence suggests that formal power hierarchies are beneficial for a group- task performance, but little or no research has focused on the outcomes of informal emergent power hierarchies. Also, very often organizations have no formal structure assigned to them, but power hierarchies still form. Therefore the research of Frauendofer et al. (2014) has great theoretical and practical relevance.

In their study, the authors test whether the more a group of individuals (who met each other for the first time) is hierarchically structured with respect to power, the better that group performs on a problem solving task (Hypothesis 1). Furthermore, they suggest that an alignment of power hierarchy with the task competence hierarchy is beneficial because it grants the more task-competent individuals with more influence, increasing the chances of a group reaching high performance (Hypothesis 2). The sample they used included 12 three-person groups and 28 four- person groups. Participants were asked to solve the Winter Survival task, which is a tool often used in emergent hierarchies group research and decision making in small groups.

The results confirmed Hypothesis 1. Power structures thus seem to help the group members to focus on the task they are performing, most probably because power hierarchies reduce power struggles and thus group conflict. Literature suggested that power hierarchies form around group members’ individual task- competence differences (Expectation State Theory; Ridgeway & Berger, 1986). This connection, however, did not influence group performance (Hypothesis 2 was not supported). In other words, the degree to which power hierarchy is based on the task- competence hierarchy within a group does not affect overall group performance.

The outcomes of this research are extremely relevant for managers, for the organizational field in general. If informal power hierarchies have a positive effect on group’s outcomes, then groups could be instructed so that they are well aware of the fact that building hierarchies is in the interest of task accomplishment. Moreover, this research supports the assumption that flat hierarchies do not really exist (because informal hierarchies quickly emerge in groups where members are on equal positions). The aforementioned findings serve to spread the knowledge that informal hierarchies are beneficial for team’s outcomes; this can help placing hierarchies in a more favorable light (Galinsky, Magee, Inesi & Gruenfeld, 2006).


Chenhall, R. H. (2008). Accounting for the horizontal organization: A review essay. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33(4–5), 517–550. doi:10.1016/j.aos.2007.07.004.
Frauendofer, D., Schmid Mast, M., Sanchez- Cortez, D., & Gatica-Perez, D. (2014). Emergent power hierarchies and group performance. International journal of Psychology, doi: 10.1002/ijop.12102.
Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D.H. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068–1074.
Halevy, N., Chou, E.Y.,&Galinsky, A. D. (2011a). A functional model of hierarchy: Why, how, and when vertical differentiation enhances group performance. Organizational Psychology Review, 1(1), 32–52. doi:10.1177/204138661380991.
Ridgeway, C. L., & Berger, J. (1986). Expectations, legitimation, and dominance behavior in task groups. American Sociological Review, 51(5), 603–617.
Schmid Mast, M. (2001). Gender differences and similarities in dominance hierarchies in same-gender groups based on speaking time. Sex Roles, 44(9), 537.


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