A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 7th, 2013 by William

The Rigor Cartis Syndrome

Have you ever wondered how and why the modern hierarchical organization chart got its start? We’ve all seen them, and if you work for living you’re probably represented on one, maybe not by name but by job function. We’ve all been affected, both good and bad, by them whether we know it or not. Regardless, we all know where we stand on one and learn to guide our career choices based on that hierarchy–more importantly where we want to be in that hierarchy.

The Egyptians are thought to be the first people to use charts to illustrate the division of labor employed for large projects like the building of the Pyramids. The French Encyclopédie, published in the mid-1700s, defined one of the first organizational charts–the grouping of an organization into divisions and connecting subordinates to managers and managers to higher managers via a set of unidirectional arrows.

You might be surprised to learn that before the advent of modern middle management there was really no need for an organization chart. As late as 1840 there were no middle managers in the US, that is, there were no managers who supervised the work of other managers and in turn reported to senior executives who themselves were salaried managers. Prior to this the traditional business firm has been a single-unit business enterprise in which an individual, or a small number of owners, operated a shop, factory, etc. out of a single office or facility.

In the United States the organization chart first appeared in the mid-1800s and has been credited to Daniel McCallum of the Erie Railway. In 1855 McCallum created an organization chart to keep track of men and resources in what was the largest railroad in the world at the time.

McCallum’s organization chart was spawned partially due to horrendous head-on train crashes on the nation’s railways at the time. These crashes caused the State of Massachusetts legislature to launch an intensive investigation into the operations of the railways. The solution outlined in the legislative committee’s “Report on Avoiding Collisions and Governing the Employees” was to fix “definite responsibilities for each phase of the railroad company’s business, drawing solid lines of authority and communication for the railroad’s administration and operation.”

In response, McCallum’s goal was to create an organizational chart with clear division of responsibilities, power conferred on bosses in the chain of command, channels of communication to report on whether job duties had been carried out and the means to allow top management to have a clear view on what was going on throughout the organization and the power to act on it.

Also due to this legislative report the railroads put in place a large number of salaried managers, to oversee the railroad’s daily operation. They established offices operated by middle managers, commanded by top managers who reported to a board of directors. Thus the railroads were the first to build large internal organizational structures showing departments with defined roles of responsibility and authority. It was the railroad industry where middle management got its foot in the door and grew to the levels we see today.

The Civil War also contributed to the advent of middle management and the associated organization chart. An example is the US army’s Armory at Springfield Massachusetts; the first works to develop extensive internal specialization and because it was in the metalworking industry this is where the techniques of the modern factory management were first to appear. The management structure, organization and controls developed at the Springfield Armory are still evidenced in American manufacturing to this day.

Years later, another man named Alfred Chandler continued to develop and promote the concept of management hierarchy and organizational structure in the workplace. Born in 1918, Pulitzer prize winner Chandler was a Harvard graduate turned professor. In his book, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, ©1977, he theorized how implementing a hierarchal structure in an organization could increase productivity and ultimately lower costs. However, I think the jury is out on whether the layering of middle management actually increases productivity and lower costs.

So it was, starting in the mid-1800s, the new overnight phenomenon–middle management and the organization chart–swept business. As a result of this management explosion, the managers themselves started to look on their work as a job function, in and of itself, and thus a lifetime career. This is when the problems started.

With the industrial revolution (up until about 1920) our rural-based economy began to take second place to the urban-based businesses that began to expand into multi-facility and vertically integrated enterprises. With vertical integration came the need for more middle management and thus deeper organizational charts. Also with this expansion, de-centralization within companies became the norm and thus the need for even more management grew. Managers were now needed to manage managers and the organization chart got deeper and deeper and complex. Once this managerial hierarchy had been formed the hierarchy itself became a major fixture in business and the power, and politics began to fester to the point where even small start-up firms believed they have the need to have a classical vertical organizational chart. Thus all organizations, however flat they are when they start, will ultimately develop into a hierarchal organization structure.

In this way the modern business organization took on a life of its own–each with a distinct (functional or dysfunctional) culture and the associated struggle of the workers wanting to rise on the organization chart. The need for people to strive to raise their position on the chart begat the need for all the interpersonal organizational games (that I describe in my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw) that are played out daily in the modern organization.

Rarely in the history of the world has a business practice–the organization chart–grown to be so important and so pervasive in so short a period of time. It overshadows all the management fads that have come and gone since like Quality Circles, Total Quality Management, Six-Sigma and Lean Manufacturing. Little did McCallum know he was unleashing probably one of the most widely used yet potentially detrimental pieces of paper floating around the modern workplace?

The organization chart also created a new type of bureaucrat–the hierophant. A hierophant is defined as: “a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy.” This describes how the organization chart bestows the lines of power from the lowest in the hierarchy up to the top person in control. Today’s modern management is obsessed with organizational structure, i.e., they have become hierophants. This explains why many organizations become little better than kingdoms.

Dr. Laurence Peter (The Peter Principle – Why Things Always Go Wrong, ©1969, Laurence J. Peter) calls this obsession “Rigor Cartis.” Peter described it as: “People, or organizations, suffering Rigor Cartis have an abnormal obsession with the construction of organization charts and a stubborn insistence upon routing every scrap of business in strict accordance with the lines and arrows of the chart, no matter what delays, or other maladies [e.g., fiefdom syndrome, gamesmanship, etc.], may result.”

I’m sure that all of you work in an organization where the organizational chart is one of the most cherished management tools and thus it would appear that the organizational chart and the hierarchy it begets appear here to stay. However, I believe that modern management needs to wake up and shed the conventional thinking on organizational structure and think outside the box–to use the trite buzz-phrase that today’s management loves.

What do I think the alternatives are you ask? In next week’s blog post I will present a new concept for organizational structure that I think has a lot of promise. Until then, keep in mind what Dale Dauten reminds us in his book The Gifted Boss: How to Find, Create and Keep Great Employees: “You can’t get to better without going through different.”


2 Responses to “The Rigor Cartis Syndrome”
  1. Anonymous says

    Keep working ,splendid job!…

  2. Priscylla says

    So glad you posted this! When we epexct our staff to treat customers extraordinarily well, it starts at the top. Leaders ALWAYS need to treat their internal customers as well as, if not better, than the way the paying customer should be treated. It can’t be one of those, do as I say, but not as I do scenarios. I focus on this service principle all of the time with my clients.It’s nice to have the statistics point out what we have already known, but haven’t always had the numbers to back it up so clearly.

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