Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Thoughts on Hierachies (Part 1): In the Dojo

I‘ve been wrestling with the topic of hierarchies quite a while, wrote several drafts for blog posts and deleted all of them. Now I figured that maybe the issue was that I was trying to write one grand blog post, where I would express all my thoughts on hierarchies. But the topic feels too big for me, and there are still so many things I haven‘t managed to wrap my head around. So I decided to slice the topic into smaller chunks and start publishing whatever might be good enough already. So here‘s the first part of a series of posts that are to come later.

In the good old days, I used to train karate a lot. And I remember one day a read a newspaper or something and spotted an ad, which caught my attention. It read something like this:

"Karate is a great martial art and can be a very useful means for self defense. At the same time, the way it is practiced is very hierarchical. In our courses, we will teach you karate in a non-hierarchical, participatory way."

Back then I just shook my head and didn‘t think about it too much. But recently I remembered the ad and found it quite interesting. The authors obviously thought hierarchy is inherently evil and needs to be avoided at all cost. An assumption I don‘t agree with - neither in general, nor specifically when it comes to karate.
I believe hierarchy in itself, like most organisational structures, is neither good nor evil. It can be more or less appropriate or helpful in a given context. It will come with certain costs and certain benefits. And it can used in a more or less helpful way.

Let‘s look at hierarchy in karate. Yes, it‘s true, the hierarchy is very obvious in the dojo: we have a master and we have a group of students. They are not treated as equals during the training sessions. And then there‘re the different levels of expertise, which are indicated by the color of the students‘ belts*. In the beginning and at the end of every training session, the group lines up in a standardised formation: The master on the one side, the students on the other. And the higher a student‘s belt, the farther to the right this person stands. So just by looking at the line-up, you can clearly see the hierarchy. During the training sessions, the hierarchy will also be reflected in the way people behave. The master tells the students what to do, and they do it. They don‘t question what the master says. There‘s no debate and no participatory decision making. And since a lot of the exercises are done in pairs or small groups, and the master cannot be present in all groups at the same time, the student with the highest belt becomes the proxy master in his/her absence. The same is true, if the master cannot show up for a training session: The student with the highest belt will lead the training session, no questions asked (unless it‘s a group of children and/or absolut beginners).

If you just look at the things I have just described and if you are suspicious of hierarchies, then it‘s understandable why this might be a turn-off. But this is only one part of the picture, and by only looking at this, you would be missing at least two other, critical aspects.

1) Practicing karate means practicing dangerous techniques. Discipline, strict rules and hierarchies are means to make the practice safe. One of the main assumption here is that the person, who‘s highest up in the hierarchy knows best how to guarantee safety and will do her/his best to keep everyone safe. Based on my experience this works quite well, in more than 2,000 hours of training, I have been injured once, and I have witnessed maybe one dozen other injuries.

2) You cannot understand the aspect of hierarchy in karate, without looking at the whole system. One other widely important aspect of karate is respect. Looking at hierarchy in Karate in isolation, without connecting it to respect, will show you a completely flawed picture. Respect is deeply engrained in every karate session. Every training session starts and ends with a ceremony, where people bow, in oder to show respect. Respect towards their master, their peers and the art of karate. Every kata, every sparring situation, any kind of excercise really starts and ends with a bow. This is a recurring gesture, which signals respect and means: "I respect you, I see you as a partner (not as an opponent), I want to learn with and from you, and I will do my best to keep you safe."
Why is respect so important, when looking at hierarchy? Because it guarantees that a master will never misuse his/her authority. Respect is based on reciprocity: It‘s required that students show their respect to the master, and the students can be sure the master respects them as well and will always act in their best interest.

Photo credit: Christian Zielecki

Of course I know that a karate dojo is very different from a business organisation. I am not advocating for using the karate system in our work environment. So what can we learn from all this, when it comes to hierarchies in a business context? When I reflected on this, I took away two general insights:
1) Hierarchy is not inherently good or evil. It serves a purpose, and we should evaluate the usefulness of hierarchy based on how effective it is in serving this purpose (and what the costs are).
2) It can be too simplistic to look at hierarchies in isolation. We need to view it as a part of a bigger system and look at the other elemenst of that system as well as the interactions between the elements.

* Technically this is not 100% correct, it‘s the kju ranks, which indicate the level of expertise, not the belt color (you could have two people with brown belts and different kju ranks). But since the mapping is almost 1:1 and for the sake of simplicity, I use belt colors in this post.


Are you interested in organisational structures? Then you should check out my posts An alternative view on company structures and Results-only Work Environments (ROWE)