11/30 – Hierarchy of Anarchy: Holarchical Structures and 3D Management

Marco Antonio Robledo

Integral theory, self-management, holarchy, 3D management

Marco Robledo


Getting rid of formal bosses does not mean hierarchy disappears. That is a common misunderstanding in this new tendency towards boss-less and flat organizations. In this paper we resort to integral theory and its application to business, 3D Management, to explain how hierarchy is a natural and desirable condition fully compatible with self-management.

The Problem with Hierarchy

The magenta level of development invented hierarchy based on the authority of the elders. Red established the hierarchy of force. For the Amber worldview, hierarchy was a given, the natural order of things. Some are up and some are down and that is just the way it is. Finally, for the Orange altitude, hierarchy is a result of your achievements and a symbol of status. Where red, amber and orange organizations are hierarchical in its ontology, green is unreservedly anti hierarchies. As a result, some green and teal organizations have replaced hierarchies with heterarchies. A heterarchy is a system of organization where the elements of the organization are unranked (non-hierarchical). In many cases, the new state of affairs has created more problems than the ones it has solved: inefficiency, demotivation, endless decision making processes. As I will show in this article, 3D Management[1] (Robledo 2004, 2014, 2016), as an application of Integral Theory to management, solves this issue by being holarchical in nature.

Holarchy and Integral Theory

Getting rid of formal bosses does not mean hierarchy disappears, which is a common misunderstanding in this new tendency towards boss-less and flat organizations. The root cause of the problem is the belief, especially of people at the green level of development that hierarchies are inherently bad. Postmodernism wrongly believes that all hierarchies or value rankings are oppressive and marginalizing. But all of nature contains hierarchies. Every complex organism is really a hierarchy of parts each part being a whole on its own, but at the same time combining into something more. Arthur Koestler (1967:48) coined the term holon to describe something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. Subsequently, Ken Wilber (1995: 26) uses the concept holarchy to describe an order where each higher level is more whole than the previous levels: “A normal hierarchy, then, is simply an order of increasing holons, representing an increase in wholeness and integrative capacity”. For example, atoms make up molecules, molecules make up cells, cells make up organs, and organs make up complex, living organisms. And, as far as it goes, there is nothing wrong with that.

Integral theory maintains there is a hierarchical order of things. Hierarchy is just a natural process and hierarchy is the fundamental structural principle of the organization. In other words, the organization is a totality whose parts are integrated into a hierarchical whole. As Wilber (1995: 26) puts it:

To be a part of a larger whole means that the whole supplies a principle (or some sort of glue) not found in the isolated parts alone, and this principle allows the parts to join, to link together, to have something in common, to be connected, in ways that they simply could not be on their own.

Hierarchy, then, converts heaps into wholes, disjointed fragments into networks of mutual interaction. When it is said that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” the “greater” means “hierarchy.” It doesn’t mean fascist domination; it means a higher (or deeper) commonality that joins isolated strands into an actual web that joins molecules into a cell, or cells into an organism.

The postmodern enterprise of the green meme and self-management turned organizations into an inoperative flatland. Some organizations in their journey to teal are making the mistake to get rid of all hierarchies as a supposed necessary condition to self-organization. How little they know they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Certainly, hierarchies can go wrong when the higher levels over dominate or even repress and alienate the lower levels. That is why Wilber conveniently distinguishes between actualization hierarchies, as in the previous example, and dominator hierarchies. A domination hierarchy is a hierarchy where any part tries to dominate the whole by force or threat of force de-emphasizing communion in favour of control. We can clearly see that the traditional hierarchical organizational structure is a domination hierarchy where the boss is the name we have given to the part that tries to control the whole. And a dominator hierarchy is indeed oppressive; the caste system is a typical example of this and most organizations we know of totally fall into this category. But most forms of hierarchy are what Wilber calls actualization hierarchies or growth hierarchies and they are useful and necessary. If dominator hierarchies are instruments of oppression, growth hierarchies are instruments of growth because their function is to maximize the potentials of the whole. They gently bring together isolated and fragmented elements as letters combine into words, and words combine into sentences and sentences are the fabric of this book.

When a hierarchy goes pathological and turns into a dominator hierarchy, the cure is not to getting rid of the hierarchy altogether, throwing the baby with the bathwater, as post moderns are inclined to and substituting by a heterarchy, which just would produce more heaps and fragments. Wilber asserts that it is enough with getting rid of the oppressive holons that have usurped their position in the overall system by abusing their power in the hierarchy (the formal boss, in our case) so that the holarchy itself can return to harmony.

As we said before heterarchy creates more problems than it solves: “Heterarchy, in and by itself, is merely differentiation without integration, disjointed parts recognizing no common and deeper purpose or organization: heaps, not wholes.” (Wilber 2000: 29)

Anybody who has dealt with a democratic organization based on consensus has seen the problems and inefficiencies it creates, with any person being able to boycott or block decision making. Actually, Wilber (1995: 31-32) defines heterarchy as much a pathology as domination hierarchies, and we don’t cure a pathology with another one:

On the other hand, in pathological heterarchy, individual holons lose their distinctive value and identity in a communal fusion and meltdown. This holon doesn’t assume it is both a whole and a part, it assumes it is a part, period. It becomes only instrumental to some other use; it is merely a strand in the web; it has no intrinsic value.

Thus, pathological heterarchy means not union but fusion; not integration but indissociation; not relating but dissolving. All values become equalized and homogenized in a flatland devoid of individual values or identities; nothing can be said to be deeper or higher or better in any meaningful sense; all values vanish into a herd mentality of the bland leading the bland.

Whereas pathological hierarchy is a type of ontological fascism (with the one dominating the many), pathological heterarchy is a type of ontological totalitarianism (with the many dominating the one).

The Sacred Order of Things

As usual, an understanding of the etymology and origins of the term are really enlightening. Hierarchy is the “ranked organization of persons or things” and it comes from the Greek hierarkhia (hieros means sacred and arkhein to lead, rule or order).

The term was introduced by Christian theologian and philosopher Dionysius the Areopagite (late 5th to early 6th century), a thinker of strong neoplatonic influence. He gives the following meaning: “Hierarchy is a sacred order, knowledge and activity, which is being assimilated to likeness with God as much as possible…” He devised a system that described a Celestial hierarchy comprised of three divisions of the nine orders of angels, with Seraphims and Cherubims at the top and Archangels and Angels at the bottom and the way of divine knowledge through a progression of the Divine Names.

Hierarchy is supposed to enable beings to be as alike as possible to God and to be at one with him. Union with God is fully realized in all stages of the ladder, through a double movement of Ascent and Descent which dominates hierarchically through the relation of God with creatures. The former manifests divinity to all beings and the latter rises toward deification.

Dionysius describes his hierarchy based on degrees of inclusion. Consequently, the law of inclusion and manifestation is the one which organizes the created hierarchies. If there is any element which maintains a more specific activity, it includes all the other activities which are more general. So, every higher level not only exceeds but it also includes all the lower levels; and this makes it superior to any other. Thus, Being is higher than Life, because it includes all beings and ‘extends farther’. On the contrary, Life extends only to living things. Also, Life is superior to Wisdom, since in the latter we have only logical living beings. We can see that the developmental sequence of evolutionary and integral theory where a whole at one stage becomes a part of a larger whole at the next one, transcending and including the former, is already present in Dionysius system.

The Catholic Church translated these celestial orders of spiritual nature into political orders of power (with the Pope at the top, and then the archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons). And so, the problem began. The original growth hierarchy degenerated into a dominator hierarchy.

The Holarchical Nature of 3D Management

3D Management (Robledo 2004, 2014, 2016) is a pioneer application of integral theory to management. It is the only integrally-built teal theory, since it was developed using a metatheory-building process that combined AQAL with meta-triangulation[2], and it is based on the Big-3 dimensions of human existence[3]. It stands for Three-Dimensional Management, in reference to three fundamental and irreducible dimensions: science, arts and ethics, which refer respectively to the techno-economical, the developmental- emotional and the moral aspects of organizational reality. Those three are integrated in an essential unit by fourth one, the spiritual dimension, which strives for unity and meaning. 3D Management denies the absolutist imperialism of the economic in business and replaces it by a harmonic triumvirate that takes equally into account other objectives such as the vertical development of people and social responsibility and total stakeholder orientation, all of them integrated towards a higher purpose. 3D Management is a metatheory that integrates all previous organizational knowledge in an integral, balanced, and non-marginalizing framework that shows a way forward for management practice and makes possible the emergence of more humane, efficacious and responsible forms of business[4].

3D Management resorts to integral theory to recover depth in organizations where higher is no longer a dirty word but a natural and desirable condition of a holarchy. The 3D Management model does not make hierarchy disappear. On the contrary, it maintains that teal organizations should not be flat, but full of depth.

If the traditional organizational holarchy would go from individuals to teams to departments to SBUs to divisions to corporations a holacracy organizational structure of would go from accountabilities to roles to circles (with their own hierarchy) to the organization as a whole[5].

 At the same time, heterarchy and self-management has its place in integral theory and 3D management. Within a given level of any hierarchical pattern, the elements of that level operate by heterarchy:

That is, no one element seems to be especially more important or more dominant, and each contributes more or less equally to the health of the whole level (so-called “bootstrapping”). But a higher-order whole, of which this lower-order whole is a part, can exert an overriding influence on each of its components. Again, when you decide to move your arm, your mind—a higher-order holistic organization—exerts influence over all the cells in your arm, which are lower-order wholes, but not vice versa: a cell in your arm cannot decide to move the whole arm—the tail does not wag the dog. (Wilber 2000: 28)

Within each level, heterarchy; between each level, hierarchy. That is the fundamental organizing principle. It entails that a circle cannot go against the purpose of the organization as a whole. It also entails that a person, as a member of a circle, cannot go against the purpose of that circle in the exercise of his/her roles.

3D Management is still based on a self-management organizing principle as Laloux (2014) proposed, that is absolutely compatible with hierarchy. For 3D Management hierarchies are only natural and inescapable[6]. If you don’t define them in advance, they will emerge informally. There is a spontaneous hierarchy that springs up organically in every instance based on expertise, interest or willingness to step in. Leadership, according with this model, is dynamic. Authority shifts based on who has the most knowledge and experience in a specific context. One accumulates authority by demonstrating expertise, helping peers, and adding value. That means that a person can act as the leader of a team undertaking a particular project and answer to those same team members in another context. Power and authority is not attached to a position as happens in traditional organizations. As a result, lots of natural, dynamic hierarchies emerge. These are hierarchies based on influence, not position, and they’re built from the bottom up. I totally agree with Laloux (2104: 135) when he says: “it can be argued that there is more management and more leadership happening at any time in Teal Organizations despite, or rather precisely because of, the absence of ultimate managers.”

We are much too used to picture hierarchies as linear, as an organizational chart envisions the different organizational levels as rungs in a ladder, but Wilber thinks those images fail to do justice to the complex interrelations they try to describe:

Thus, the common charge that all hierarchies are “linear” completely misses the point. Stages of growth in any system can, of course, be written down in a “linear” order, just as we can write down: acorn, seedling, oak; but to accuse the oak of therefore being linear is silly. As we will see, the stages of growth are not haphazard or random, but occur in some sort of pattern, but to call this pattern “linear” does not at all imply that the processes themselves are a rigidly one-way street; they are interdependent and complexly interactive. So we can use the metaphors of “levels” or “ladders” or “strata” only if we exercise a little imagination in understanding the complexity that is actually involved. (Wilber 2000: 27)

He prefers to draw them in 3D as a series of concentric spheres, much more like Chinese boxes, where every new box or sphere transcend and includes the previous one. Or as Forrest Gump would probably describe it, an organization is like a box of chocolates; each chocolate is made of different ingredients of the same importance (e.g. hazelnut pieces) and each ingredient includes other different parts, and so on and so forth.


Koestler, Arthur (1967). The Ghost in the Machine (1990 reprint ed.). London: Hutchinson (Penguin Group).

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness. Brussels, Belgium: Nelson Parker.

Robertson, B. (2015). Holacracy: The New Management System for a rapidly changing world; Henry Holt and Company: New York, NY, USA.

Robledo, M. A. (2004) D3D: Un Enfoque Integral de la Dirección de Empresas.  Ediciones Díaz de Santos.

Robledo, M. A. (2014). Building an integral metatheory of management. European Management Journal, 32(4), 535-546.

Robledo, M. A. (2016) 3D-Management: An Integral Business Theory. Integral Leadership Review Vol. 16.3: 273-281

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston. Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000) A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision of Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala Publications.


[1] For an in-depth explanation of the theory see Robledo (2016). The article can be retrieved from

[2] Meta-triangulation is a qualitative research process developed by Gioia and Pitre for building theories recognizing and using various paradigms. Meta-triangulation identifies the underlying paradigms of different theories and develops new theories or paradigms to explain the phenomenon of study. Its process includes three phases (ground work, data analysis, and theory building)

[3] The Big Three is a concept employed by Ken Wilber to refer to the three major value spheres of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and objectivity. These three domains of reality are discernable in all major languages through pronouns that represent first-, second-, and third-person perspectives (I, We, and It/s).

[4] You can see how this integration was done, together with the whole process of metatheory building in: Robledo, M.A. (2014). Building an integral metatheory of management. European Management Journal, 32(4), 535-546.

[5] Holacracy (Robertson, 2015) is a governance system with a holarchical structure. According to its principles, the smaller holon is not the person but the accountabilities. Holacracy considers human beings not as holons but as separate autonomous entities that have accountabilities to respond to, and participate in the organization’s functions through the roles they perform. Those accountabilities are the smaller holons in the organizational system, its most basic building blocks. Holacracy refers to organization as the action and the effect of organizing, (i.e. organizational structure and governance system).

[6] The theory itself has a hierarchical (or holarchical) structure where the three dimensions Science, Arts and Ethics are sub-holons of the Spiritual dimension. And that implies a hierarchy of objectives: the objectives and KPIs of the three dimensions cannot go against or, if you prefer, have to be aligned to the objective of the spiritual dimension (in other words, with the purpose of the organization).

About the Author

Marco Antonio Robledo (PhD, MBA) is a full professor of management at the University of the Balearics Islands (Spain). He is also the director of the MBA program of the same university. He has published a book in Spanish where he introduces 3D-Management his pioneer integral theory of management and several papers about integral business in a number of conferences and journals. He defines himself as a change agent that helps organizations and individuals in their integral development and transformation. He is the founder and leader of the 3D Management Club of Conscious Organizations.


Leave a Comment