Do You Really Want to Work in a Flat Organisation?

Over the past few years there has been something of a crusade against hierarchy in our oganisations.  With fashionable companies such as Zappos adopting holacracy, which means authority and decision-making are distributed to self managing, self organising teams, there is a distinct sense that hierarchy is on the way out.

Indeed, only last month The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) awarded its Albert Medal to Dutchman Jos de Blok for his work at the nursing social business Buurtzorg, who famously provide nurses with a huge amount of autonomy and control, with the entire organisation operating with a few dozen managers.

The theory is a well trodden one.  Advocates of flat organisations suggest that communication flows more easily, and information has less layers to sift through before reaching someone who can take actions with it.

A flatter organisation therefore will lead to a more sense and respond style, whereby the organisation can sense what the market is doing, filter that information rapidly and organise itself for a swift response.  It sounds beguiling doesn’t it?  It sounds the kind of thing that one would imagine most employees would find incredibly attractive.

Do we secretely love hierarchy?

Except, a recent study suggests that employees might not actually mind a bit of hierarchy after all, just so long as it’s a fair and just one.

“Hierarchy can often be full of injustice,” the researchers declare. “But for some tasks and goals, people are better able to do their job in that environment than in a more egalitarian setup.”

The researchers decided to focus their exploration on something called compensatory control theory.  This theory suggests that people generally prefer to view the world as something that is structured and orderly.  Running with that theory therefore, it seems sensible to believe we like our organisations to have the same characteristics.

To test the hypothesis, the researchers required participants to read through a number of articles describing the world in various ways.  A common characteristic of the articles was that they each described the world as random or uncontrolled in a certain way.  This acted as the primer for the participants.

Once primed, they were then asked to describe how they felt about hierarchy in the workplace.  They were given a series of questions, such as “In a business, it’s important for one person to make the final decision” or “Businesses are most effective when there are a few people who have the influence to get things done.”

Lo and behold, it transpired that the participants agreed with those statements more often than not.  Now, of course, it must be said that they were primed to think of the world as rather chaotic, so it’s perhaps not that surprising that they craved a bit of order and stability, but it’s interesting nonetheless.  

This is especially so as the researchers found that structure and order is only really desirable if it is fair and benevolent.  As soon as things start becoming a bit unfair and arbitrary, then support for hierarchy melts away pretty swiftly.

How about you?  Do you value structure and order in the organisations you work for?


Image source: Project Management