Consider the following:
- People want to be things, instead of do things or own things
- People act in regards to (role)models, instead of goals
- People imitate those models
- The smaller the distance to the model, the easier it is to imitate and become similar
- More imitation leads to less differentiation, which leads to envy, jealousy and tension within a group
- Sacrifices of scapegoats release tension within the group
- Hierarchies and immutable titles prevent sameness-generated tension within a group
The above points attempt to summarise a model called “mimetic desire”, coined by the French author Rene Girard, and somewhat popularised by the entrepreneur Peter Thiel.
I’ve come across Girard years ago and attempted reading “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”, but never got much out of it. Until lately, I came across this article Have a look to get a more exhaustive explanation and real-world examples.
How does all this translate to flat and egalitarian companies?
Modern companies, especially those in the software business, tend to have less hierarchical structures. They often start without any authority, but later on, develop some. An entirely non-hierarchical and growing company is prone to reach a point where chaos and possibly anarchy generate enough tension for the work environment to become unbearable.
The mimetic theory suggests that when there is little or no hierarchy in titles, job descriptions, responsibilities, accountability, or mental ownership, people imitate and become envious of each other. They start arguing over insignificant issues, often forming camps over these minuscule differences.
Release or prevent
To momentarily resolve this tension, someone or something can be “sacrificed”, as in removed or silenced. These actions create blame and reduce the pressure within the company. This scapegoating is a repeating phenomenon and an essential piece of mimetic theory. The scapegoat must be neutral enough not to appear part of a conflicting group but relevant enough to make a difference. Nevertheless, sacrificing a scapegoat is a temporary solution, as the original problem that produced the pressure still exists.
Instead of temporarily releasing pressure, some form of hierarchy or structure prevents tension. Hierarchy distances people from each other, so that comparison, similarity and thus jealousy is harder to establish. Traditional title based hierarchy is the obvious and most straightforward solution, but in a flat-as-possible organisation, middle management is usually non-existent.
Instead of static titles, go for dynamic roles. People might fair well within self-organising teams, or have temporary positions that come with authority. Organisations can have merit- or even chance-based functions, instead of permanent titles. Businesses do not need managers to function but need some form of self-management, self-organisation and leadership on all levels.
The problem within a growing low-hierarchical company is that there is close to no differentiation in authority, and oftentimes no differences in peoples’ job descriptions. In a familiar environment, even a CEO can appear so close as to have too little differentiation and become exposed to comparison, jealousy, the works. A CEO’s authority and power diminish, and she then becomes part of the petty disputes.
The position of the CEO is reachable and usurpable unless the CEO has some other unchangeable property. Immutable titles such as Founder, are ones that cannot be attained after the founding, and these people hold exclusive authority, forever.
Some hierarchy, but not much
I don’t advocate unnecessary middle management, but am beginning to recognise more reasons why absolutely no hierarchy and forced equality is a bad idea.
What I see as necessary, is a hierarchy of information flow, decoupled from whatever the ruling and decision-making entities are. Some well-established, adequately defined, earned, and collectively acknowledged hierarchy and discipline is often a solution to the problem of mimetic desire, as well as an antidote to confusion.
By default, people like, and if not consciously directed to do otherwise, naturally hire others who are like them. This behaviour leads to homogenous groups that, combined with forced equality, can quite quickly create an environment where people argue not because they are different but because they are mostly the same. Because they are the same, these fights tend to be about insignificant or unresolvable petty things that can not be solved. This type of conflict often creates unexplainable and unresolvable tension.
Instead, companies should look for differences in peoples’ backgrounds and traits, their skill levels, and specialisation. Different people create different types of relationships in mentorships, coaching, teaching, generally helping, they have different roles and responsibilities, and more varied topics for conversations during lunchtime.
Hidden things and then some
Mimetic desire, or mimetic theory, explains many of the problems non-hierarchical and family-like companies eventually face. These problems tend to be hard to perceive because they’re often veiled by something completely insignificant, and the roots of the issues seem especially hard to fathom.
“Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” refers to the knowledge that is presumably hidden in ancient, often religious, texts. This knowledge describes all of the above via parables and stories. Luckily we don’t need all that surrounding mumbo-jumbo to understand what’s going on around us, and shouldn’t shy away because of some old religious references.
Perhaps the “next level of human consciousness” described in the “teal paradigm” dissolves ego-driven jealousy and comparison, allowing people to move on to more fulfilling ways of approaching group dynamics. Perhaps the company as a purposeful organism connected to the ecosystem around it helps direct peoples’ attention and prevent the abovementioned problems.