Better teams have a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy

Problem Solving Team

Again and again, we find in our team workouts the adverse effect of (strong) hierarchical leaders on team performance. This is also confirmed by empirical research. However, the typical response we get when this is demonstrated in the lower performance of these hierarchical teams is: “what else should we do – no leadership?”

Even though our workouts also demonstrate that the ‘no leadership’ approach provides a higher performance than the hierarchical approach, no leadership is not the answer either. A better answer is heterarchy! 

Aime and others import this originally neurobiological concept because it clearly conceptualises the fact that power among team members may shift depending on what resources and skills are most relevant to the situation.

Heterarchy is defined as “a relational system in which the relative power among team members shifts over time as the resources of specific team members become more relevant (and the resources of other members become less relevant) because of changes in the situation or task.”

Even though existing theories on power assume shifts in power within teams are undesirable and dysfunctional this research demonstrates that as long as the team considers the shift in power as legitimate (i.e. the team member  has the ‘right’ to express power based on the value it provides given the changed situation).

Aime and others found a positive relationship between heterarchy and team creativity.

What is necessary for a heterarchy to work?

  • A general attitude of professionalism,
  • Focus on the team objective, and
  • An understanding of what each team member has to offer.


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