The workplace is not a democracy. Instead, it is filled with layers of command. That's the informed opinion of Harold Leavitt of Pasadena...

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The workplace is not a democracy. Instead, it is filled with layers of command.

That’s the informed opinion of Harold Leavitt of Pasadena, Calif., a retired professor of organizational behavior at the graduate school of business at Stanford University. “Hierarchy, that oldest and most controlling attribute of large human organizations, shouldn’t just go on and on, but it does,” said Leavitt, who has a doctorate in social psychology and is a lecturer, consultant and author.

His newest book addresses this concern. It’s titled “Top Down: Why Hierarchies Are Here to Stay and How to Manage Them More Effectively” (Harvard Business School Press, $29.95).

Hierarchies — the opposite of a democracy — should be examined, according to Leavitt, “because those multilevel, pyramid-shaped structures are authoritarian.”

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Because they usually follow a military style of management, he points out, “they breed infantilizing dependency that generates distrust, conflict, toadying, territoriality, back stabbing, distorted communication and most of the other ailments that plague every large organization.”

In other words, there are no real democracies in big businesses, no matter how kind and gentle top executives and middle managers profess to be.

“Hierarchies can be powdered and perfumed, but in the last analysis, they still can lay off 10 percent of their workers — and you can’t do that in a democracy,” said Leavitt. “They are as real as the air we breathe and often as impure.”

However, the professor also adds that hierarchies, despite their drawbacks, are “surprisingly efficient in getting big, complicated jobs done.”

And they continue to exist — perhaps even to increase — despite the fact that many workers feel alienated, which can hurt productivity.

I asked Leavitt how employees who are at the bottom of the pyramid can cope in such an environment.

“You have to understand that in the last analysis you have a boss, and develop savvy about what aspects of the organization you can control, such as informal relationships and networking,” he said. “Don’t assume that you are perfectly free to say and do whatever you want. … It’s naive to think you work in a democracy.”

And when faced with these constraints, Leavitt adds, “employees who think they can speak completely openly to their bosses are making a mistake. And any boss who thinks employees speak the truth to them all the time also is making a mistake.”

E-mail questions to Carol Kleiman at ckleiman@tribune.com. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.