There are some things you just shouldn’t fight and humans operating in hierarchies is one of them. Contrary to the current trend, flat hierarchies just don’t work.
Humans have evolved over two million years to work in hierarchies and two decades of trying to get rid of them in our businesses cannot undo that. It’s like trying to swim upstream.
This does not mean that businesses need to revert to industrial age hierarchies with only a few people making every decision. On a practical level, it involves leaders having the courage to delegate responsibility, allowing their people to own decision-making in specific situations while retaining the overall accountability for the team’s actions.
There is always a clear hierarchy but team-members adopt different positions within it depending on the situation- we call this a dynamic hierarchy.
When the responsibility for leadership and decision-making is shared between people, it enables teams to make better-informed decisions, faster, which in turn results in a higher likelihood of success.
By first understanding and acknowledging that hierarchy is natural in humans, we can begin to see what’s wrong with creating flat hierarchies and we can then design a better way of organising our teams and businesses. There are four elements leaders need to be aware of to create a dynamic hierarchy, which we will take you through at the end of this article.
The evolution of hierarchy in teams
For the vast majority of human history, being a leader came with a lot of responsibility, danger and sacrifice and those who wanted the benefits of leadership had to accept that. It was not for everyone.
When humans were hunting and gathering, strength was the measurement of where you fit into the tribe, and the strongest men took leadership roles. These men got the best cuts of meat, and the pick of the women but they had to earn the perks. The leaders had to hunt the biggest prey, and when it came to wars with other tribes, they were the ones who put their lives on the line doing the fighting.
Leaving the Caves
Only in the last 10,000 years have we moved away from our “natural state” of living in strictly hierarchical tribes and have started to organise ourselves in different ways to achieve things together. Since the industrial revolution, technology has played a pivotal role in how we organise ourselves, and this trend is only accelerating.
Industrial Age Hierarchies
During the industrial revolution, the technology available required lots of people to do physical work and only a few to think about what to do in leadership roles. Leadership was decided on mental attributes and the skills necessary for leadership were learned at expensive schools that only the rich could afford. While not fair, the hierarchy in industrial age organisations was explicit and felt natural. Those in charge made money and business boomed up until the point that individual leaders got overwhelmed by the number of decisions they had to make.
Flat Hierarchies and Flatlining Businesses
With the digital revolution, technology increasingly automated physical work. Thought work became standard, which required more of society to be educated to a higher level.
It has become fashionable in the last few decades for organisations to copy famous examples of “flat organisations” from Silicon Valley. But even Google, the poster child of flatness has structure.
Those who have really tried to get rid of all structure have found it hard. Buffer, Zappos and Medium are examples of well known companies that have famously struggled with adopting truly flat hierarchies.
I believe that the reason for this is that as soon as you remove an overt hierarchy from the equation, people spend time trying to establish where they fit in the pecking order of a covert and self-imposed hierarchy – you just can’t fight evolution.
Before starting my own business, I consulted with companies as an aviation subject matter expert. The fantastic people I worked with would proudly tell me that they operated in a flat structure, but I found that it was, therefore, common to have no idea about who owned decisions. Endless meetings would result in everyone taking away different messages and never assuming responsibility, timelines slipped, and apathy reigned.
To break it down further, I believe these are the main consequences of a flat hierarchy:
- It slows business down: People waste time establishing their own hierarchy because humans are hardwired to work in one
- It creates apathy: When no one knows what decisions he or she are responsible for, productivity goes out of the window because it is easy to blame others
- It is the source of office politics: When people have to fight for position in a covert hierarchy they often resort to unnecessary and unhealthy practices to get ahead
The Dynamic Alternative
In any team sport, different players are in charge depending on the situation, this is the same on the battlefield, and it should be the same in business.
Players do not have time to ask their coach for permission on the field; soldiers make life and death decisions under the rules of engagement without referring to their commanding officer. They operate dynamic hierarchies, where the person with the best understanding of the situation is empowered to make the decision and act. There is always a hierarchy it just changes depending on the situation, and it is possible to implement this type of dynamic hierarchy in business.
Here are the 4 key elements that will help you implement a dynamic hierarchy in your organisation. In doing so, you will speed up decision making and increase the engagement of your team because people thrive in this modern twist on what comes naturally to us.
- Delegate responsibility: If you’re a team leader, dare to let your people own the decision-making for your entire team in specific situations – trust them, and they will not let you down
- Retain overall accountability: While you can delegate the responsibility, as the leader you always retain accountability for the results of the team in the same way a sports coach is held accountable for their team’s performance
- Maintain information transparency: If you are empowering people to make decisions on behalf of the team, you have to let them have full awareness of the situation to make effective decisions
- Enable honest debate: The best decisions are made when those responsible for making them have time to ask for diverse, honest input
In the fast-moving world of business in 2018, re-introducing Industrial hierarchies would result in painfully slow decision making, like sports stars continually referring to their coach before every play. At the other extreme, flat hierarchies slow down business while employees argue about who gets to make the decision.
Dynamic hierarchies radically increase the speed and efficiency with which teams can make decisions, but these are just the immediate benefits. At a human level, empowering your people to make decisions on behalf of the team in specific situations allows them to make a genuine impact. Their morale improves – which increases the likelihood of team success – which leads to higher morale, it is a virtuous cycle.
People do not have to choose between being an oppressed corporate drone in an Industrial hierarchy or navigating the corrosive politics of a flat one. They can feel like a valued member of a close-knit tribe in a dynamic hierarchy.
Intelligent teamwork is achieved by acknowledging that humans evolved to work together in a particular way and to achieve success in business we should tap into what feels natural to us.