The ‘human’ underpinning workplace resource

Rosalind Searle on the psychological implications of working ‘under’ a hierarchical structure.

Organisational psychology has an important role to play in reinjecting human aspects into large hierarchical workplaces. But smaller organisations, and the self-employed, face their own challenges and need our attention too.  

Many of us work in quite large organisations, under a traditional hierarchical structure. UK employment statistics show that over 10 million people are employed in workplaces with between 250 and 1000 staff. But in fact, the most common size of employer for UK workers are small firms (under 250), with 13 million workers earning their crust in workplaces with an average of just five people. There can be significant differences in the experiences of those working in these different sizes of organisations, but what type of workplace is best for worker wellbeing? Is the grass always greener on the other side?

While there is considerable longitudinal research on those working in large organisations, such as the unique UK civil service studies (Bogg & Cooper, 1995), the experiences of those working in smaller business or for themselves have received far less attention. So what do we know?

Trust, conflict and control
Large organisations, while able to offer development and progression opportunities, can also have lower levels of trust for their employees (Searle et al., 2011). For example, it can become difficult to keep employees informed at the same rate about the same things within a large organisation (Hope-Hailey et al., 2012). Larger organisations can also be more political contexts, which can be more detrimental for non-majority groups, such as women and Black And Minority Ethnic (BAME) employees (McCord et al., 2017). Indeed the current UK evidence of gender and ethnicity wage gaps shows that the remunerations of staff can be very different even in the same workplace.

In contrast, research shows that self-employed people report the highest level of job satisfaction and job involvement. However, they also experience the highest levels of home/work conflict (Parasuraman & Simmers, 2001). In addition while autonomy and work flexibility are highest for this group of workers, there are also important gender differences to these results – self-employed women still experience more blurring of their home and work obligations.

Studies have long shown that having more control over your work can help to mitigate the negative effects of stress (Hessels et al., 2017). However, studies of those working in small business reveal that they can be far more stressed due to their heavier workloads, with more negative reported health alongside increased isolation and loneliness than those either working in larger organisations or alone (Godin et al., 2017).

If you’re working under a large hierarchy, perhaps you feel like an invisible cog in a big wheel. And indeed, such organisations are often less aware of the contributions of their individual workers. They may use performance management systems that promote competition between divisions and teams, in the mistaken belief that such drivers for behaviour will make the firm more effective. Evidence suggests that while in the short-term a performance focus can have organisational benefits, the impact on workers’ wellbeing is less positive – asymmetric distribution of high salaries, bonuses and promotions to those deemed to be excelling, while at the same time punishing and demoralising other workers (Sapegina & Weibel, 2017). These competitive cultures drive out pro-social behaviour that can make workplaces less pleasant to work in. As psychologists we have been relatively late in considering the corrosive impact of large pay differentials for those working in the same team (Carr et al., 1998). We have also left to economists discussion of what the level of remuneration, such as living wages, has on workers (although see Yao et al., 2017).

Studies also show differences for workers operating in performance-orientated climates (Ames 1992), with social comparison, achievement and therefore competition valued above development and learning. Such a climate can reward the acquisition and consolidation of knowledge – this may lead to ‘knowledge hoarding’ (Connelly, Zweig et al. 2012). In contrast, ‘mastery climates’ emphasise learning and development through promoting autonomy (Gagné, 2009) and collaborations between co-workers (Nerstad et al., 2017). Wellbeing will be enhanced as employees can avoid repeating others' failures and become better in their work, making the organisation more effective.

Yet these positive climates are not just the preserve of smaller organisations operating without a hierarchy. Instead they rest on the skills of local managers able to model knowledge sharing behaviours by trusting the employees (Nerstad et al., 2017). Therefore, in large organisations it is important to emphasise the role of positive organisation and supervisor support (Joo et al., 2017).

Job crafting
Evidence shows that crafting your own work is often not an option within hierarchal organisations. Larger workplaces often restructure work so that it is divided up into smaller, and thus often less meaningful, components (Hackman & Oldham, 1974). Yet the benefits of ‘job crafting’ are clear in terms of not only retaining staff, but also in enhancing their engagement and job satisfaction (Tims et al., 2013). Job crafting does not reduce the demands of a job, but it does enable individuals to think about the resources that they have around them and to use them more effectively. It is a process that encourages dialogue and cooperation. Interventions such as shared work-hubs are useful in stemming the social isolation of self-employment: working alone or in a small workgroup can result in loneliness, which is known to reduce wellbeing (Masi et al., 2010).

What can we conclude? That whether you are working under a hierarchy or under your own steam, attention must be paid to positive organisational supports: the way jobs are designed and carried out, the selection and development of good local leaders, the creation of cooperative climates that promote more effective exchanges of information, and the use of fairer performance management systems. It is over-simplistic to think that working in large and hierarchal workplaces is necessarily detrimental to human beings; working for yourself can also be depleting and result in poor mental health. Ensuring that work is meaningful, whatever it involves, is hugely important to our identities and wellbeing. So is ensuring that we are remunerated in a fair way that allows us to feel some control over our finances.

Rosalind Searle is Professor in Human Resource Management and Organisational Psychology at the University of Glasgow. [email protected]

This article is part of the 'Under…' special issue.


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