Which organizational system do you prefer? One in which each individual employee or member is considered equal, no matter how long they’ve been a member or what they bring to the table; or a system in which each employee or member earns their way up the organizational hierarchy based on seniority, contribution to the group, or the respect of their peers?


I’ve been in enough organizations over the course of my life to see the two opposing forces of this duality in action. While the system in most companies and groups is a combination of these two philosophies, I’ve seen a wide range of cultures that fit all along a continuum between one extreme and the other.

For example, when I worked for Continental Airlines, just about the entire company was based on a seniority system. Each person’s pay, schedule, vacation, and even their social standing was based on their seniority number. A person who was hired just one day after another would forever hold rank over that person in almost every aspect of the job.

When I worked in the restaurant industry, I witnessed a wide variety of systems. One restaurant constantly rotated the sections so that everyone spent an equal amount of time in the good and bad sections. Another reserved the good sections for bartenders and waiters who earned the right to be there. The most senior employees had been there for years and held tightly to those high-paying sections.

The Continuum

On the extreme right of this continuum is a hazing system where senior members put junior members through physical and mental challenge; forcing them to prove how much they want to be a part of the organization or quit. On the extreme left is a system in which everyone is equal, no matter how long they’ve been a member or what they bring to the table.

Fraternities and sororities are notorious for the tough system that new members have to go through. Although hazing is illegal today, it used to be widespread and still exists in some form today. Most new members of a Greek organization have to do all the dirty work; including cleaning the house, working the events, and paying respect to the older members.

In the film industry, everyone starts out as a PA (production assistant), which is a generic term for an entry level position. PAs are paid the least and are asked to do the dirty work. Advancement has to do with proving yourself to someone who will hire you for a better position on the next project.

The Nebraska Example

I’m originally from Nebraska; and like most Nebraskans, I keep a close eye on the football program. There’s been a lot of upheaval this year with last season’s athletic director, Steve Peterson; and coach, Bill Callahan, getting fired. The situation has provided some interesting insight into the preferred organizational method of the state of Nebraska.

The Nebraska football program enjoyed great success with more than 40 years of winning seasons until an abrupt end in the Peterson/Callahan Era, when 2 of the last 4 years were losing seasons. This drastic change in culture brought on an enormous amount of speculation as to why this was happening.

Callahan was bringing in the best recruiting classes the state had ever seen with 4 and 5 star recruits everywhere. Nebraska was finally hitting the top 10 lists of the major recruiting watch sites; but this talent wasn’t translating into wins on the field.

Recruiting classes in the winning era were never nationally recognized, but somehow they came together to win a ton of games and 5 national championships. What was the reason for this apparent contradiction?

Many players in the winning era have come out this year to describe the culture under the previous leadership. As they explain it, it was a tough place where hard work and respect ruled. A new player was expected to earn his way up the social hierarchy with hard work and discipline.

The prevailing opinion in Nebraska is that the new leadership tried to “modernize” this system by bringing in better recruits and creating a “friendlier” environment for the athletes. The result was a culture of individuals with few leaders emerging from the group.

My Preference

If you ask me, I prefer a system that is based on both hierarchy and individualism. I feel more comfortable with systems that are heavier on the “earn your way” side. I understand that it can be tough in today’s world where people seem to change jobs every three years, but I like the idea of waiting your turn for the good of the whole.

One thing I do know is that a team is only as good as the synergy between its members. You can assemble a group of great talent, but it won’t matter if they don’t know how to work together. In my opinion, systems that require members to earn their way tend to promote a greater sense of loyalty to the group as a whole.