How helpful is hierarchy and rank in your workplace? Our personal views vary wildly, and are shaped by the systems we are familiar with, and how well they work for us. For some the ’rankism’ caused by hierarchical systems is an ’ism’ equivalent to racism or sexism, while for many of us, hierarchy is just another headache to avoid, like office politics.
If you’ve ever worked with an incompetent boss, or supervisors who pull rank rather than listen to grassroots ideas, then hierarchy might well have held you back. If you have been lucky enough to experience a true meritocracy at work, then reducing the number of management layers might seem like a lesser priority.
But whatever your personal opinion, reducing hierarchy is certainly an idea that has long generated interest. This 1995 vintage report was prepared to evaluate whether or not the new idea of a delayered, non-hierarchical structure could bring business benefit, and concluded that it was too early to decide. In the last twenty years, however, more and more businesses have joined in on the experiment, moving to alternative models of management which are flatter and more networked.
Is your company looking for ways to overcome the invisible barriers that hierarchy imposes at work? Below is a list we’ve compiled that can help you with eliminating hierarchy at work. Try these ideas out and remember that collaboration in the workplace is everything.
1. Promote Respect
The problems experienced by highly hierarchical workplaces are often not related to the hierarchy itself. As often as not, there’s a deeper underlying issue based around respect.
Hierarchy is not an inherently bad thing, and to a level, it is inevitable in business (not to mention politics, sports and so on). What makes it a painful, and often slow environment to work in, is the state of mind of those involved. If management do not respect their teams, and colleagues do not respect those around them, then hierarchical structures will breed a lack of trust and innovation. Having to sign off every idea, and blindly comply with instructions rather than collaboratively create solutions together, is typical of dysfunctional hierarchies, and actually implies a problem of respect rather than structure.
Before looking to make dramatic structural changes, check out how your people are feeling. Do they feel valued and respected by their boss? If not, then simply flattening the structure will leave a vacuum which might not be naturally filled. Build morale, motivation and independence before making structural changes.
2. Involve Everyone
Once you have decided the time is right to make structural changes to your organisation, then it’s time to start thinking about your optimal, flattened, structure. Involve your team in this decision making process, to get the best outcome for everyone, as well as starting as you mean to go on.
Key to a sustainable flat business structure is working in a grassroots up fashion as far as possible. When you’re designing your structure it is essential to engage the team in a conversation about where you are now, where you’re headed, and then the best way to get there together. But this approach should also go for more everyday activities.
If you’re planning a project, then a collaborative approach will make sure you’re including the contribution of everyone available, and keeping everybody engaged and involved right from the beginning. If you have a specific problem that needs to be solved, share it and watch as the team pull together to generate solutions.
While a hierarchy might expect bosses to resolve their employees’ problems, and be the sole originator of praise and discipline, a team with a flatter structure works together to support each other and keep things moving. Frequent opportunities for communication and for ’checking in’ with each other - either in formal or less structured ways - can make sure that issues are surfaced and resolved before they grow out of proportion.
This ’skin in the game’ approach is essential for working in a non hierarchical organisation.
3. Plan Your Processes
In a hierarchy, a boss or superior might be the one to have ultimate say on whether an idea stays or goes, and the same individual might be the source of all information, connections and knowhow. In a flatter structure, you need to minimise the need for these interventions by a superior. This can often be achieved by putting the right rules and processes in place to allow work to flow without an individual pushing it.
Getting the right rules in place to remove management layers is not a simple process. Whatever you design in the beginning, expect that you will need to amend it and make changes as new scenarios come up.
Consider who holds decision making powers, and how communication processes between individual and departments might be arranged to ensure that information flows freely. A typical hierarchical structure looks like a pyramid, but you’re aiming to make a more matrixed structure work, in which teams are interconnected rather than working in parallel. When this works well, it encourages innovation and contribution, helping individuals develop meaningful relationships with colleagues, rather than funnelling all ideas up a management food chain.
Figure out also how to ensure personal accountability for workload. Without bosses looking over their shoulders, some employees will flourish, but some might also struggle to prioritise or focus. Although these are growing pains in transitioning to a new system, and can be worked out, they can also mount up to create longer term problems if not addressed early.
Running pilots and trials can help you find a system that fits, without damaging the business through trial and error.
4. Play to Your Strengths
Once you have a structure mapped out, you can make it work better by making sure everyone has a good understanding of the skills and experiences of those around them. While in a hierarchy, a manager might join the dots and create teams to work together on projects, a flatter team must be more self-directing. Building a functional team like this takes time, and developing the culture which accepts some risk to encourage learning and growth is not simple.
Actively setting up opportunities for individuals to work in different teams, and learn new skills, helps accelerate the process. Another useful approach is to buddy up individuals to learn from each other, in pairings which might include mentoring and reverse mentoring relationships. Reverse mentoring is where more junior team members teach their superiors skills they need, often including learning new tech and applications.
See Also: Management and Leadership Advice
Moving to a flatter business structure has been an idea on people’s minds for decades now, but for businesses more engaged in creating and problem solving, removing management layers and barriers is a pressing need. Doing so allows greater creativity and speed, and fits with the millennial mindset, which assumes that we wish for some meaning in work.
Flattening structures is not a quick process, but as it encourages positive changes like increasing respect for colleagues and personal ownership of workload, it’s a beneficial step for most businesses. A flatter business can be leaner and more agile, as well as boasting more engaged colleagues - a combination that might well keep you ahead of the competition.