The traditional organisational hierarchy is so ingrained in our work culture that it is hard to imagine how businesses would function without it. In this system, employees are divided into multiple layers according to their level of authority and responsibility, with a clear chain of command running from top to bottom.
But as the world changes around us, so do our attitudes, which raises the question: is this the most effective way to work?
Some leading thinkers suggest not. Instead of the traditional pyramid-style hierarchy, they advocate a flatter, more equal structure. In such a system, middle management is stripped away and authority is distributed more evenly, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few.
This idea is likely to excite and shock in equal measure, but whatever your opinion, it asks some interesting questions about the way we work.
While some work practices haven’t changed for decades, our attitudes and expectations are beginning to shift. Younger generations are becoming more prominent in the workplace, and with them come new approaches and ideas about the way we work.
Compared with older generations, millennials, i.e. those born in the 1980s and 90s, have different expectations of their employer, their workspace and their managers. Instead of the traditional authoritarian ‘boss’ figure telling them what to do, they expect their managers to provide regular feedback, support and encouragement. And from their employer, they expect engaging, meaningful work, as well as continuous learning and development.
The millennial generation are also more resilient to change and uncertainty, meaning they are less likely to tolerate bad managers or employers that don’t provide what they are looking for.
In addition, technology increasingly helps employees manage and plan their own time, share information and give feedback on colleagues or even their employer – all things traditionally done by those higher up the corporate food chain.
The result is that the real qualities and value of people managers are increasingly exposed. In many cases, managers have to raise their game if they are to stay relevant. And with the millennial generation set to be the business leaders of tomorrow, the current business orthodoxy will be questioned more and more.
One extreme alternative to the traditional hierarchy is to do away with managers altogether.
Do we really need managers?
As adults, we are all in charge of our personal lives. Each day we make countless decisions, big and small, about the best, most effective course of action. For the most part, we don’t require anyone’s permission to change our job, move house, buy new shoes or go on holiday. Because outside of work, we are all managers. Why, then, does this change when we get to work?
The traditional hierarchy, where employees must often seek approval from managers before taking action, creates a dynamic that we are unused to outside of work. The balance of authority and dependence makes it similar to a child-parent relationship. If anything, having to get each decision or action approved (or rejected) undermines the confidence of employees, forcing them into a position where they are reliant on an authority figure.
As a result, employees often pass the buck to their manager, who is rightly paid more to take responsibility. But other than the designated job titles, there’s nothing to say that regular employees can’t make sensible decisions themselves. In reality, we are all capable of making decisions and taking control. We all demonstrate common sense, self-preservation, the ability to plan, to foresee problems and prioritise tasks in order of importance. Otherwise how would we ever get anything done?
This is not to belittle the role of a manager. On the contrary, in the traditional organisational structure, the increased level of responsibility placed on managers puts them under greater pressure than their reportees, requiring a greater level of resilience. In a flatter structure, the authority, along with it the responsibility, is distributed more evenly between employees.
So what would a manager-less organisation look like?
In a flat organisation, employees take more responsibility for the direction of their work. People are assigned to projects, not roles, giving them more freedom to apply their skills in a flexible, creative way. Projects are handled by self-organising teams, which decide between them who is responsible for what tasks, and have the authority to make any decisions involved in achieving a goal.
This encourages action and innovation, unleashing the untapped potential of your workforce. And with this greater level of autonomy and responsibility, individuals learn to be better decision makers. The result is a greater degree of self-realisation in the workplace, which naturally leads to happier, more engaged, and more productive employees.
But managers need not worry – transitioning to a flatter structure doesn’t mean that they would be out of a job, or that their experience or skills would no longer be needed. If anything, they will adapt more quickly to this new way of working, given that their job already involves making judgement calls and taking responsibility.
The case against
A flat organisation is not without its problems, however. Research has shown that by removing middle management, some organisations end up with more power in the hands of fewer people at the very top – CEOs or business owners, for example.
Others argue that hierarchies develop naturally and always have – some people are more inclined to take charge of situations, whereas others are more compliant. This highlights one major potential issue with a flatter structure: you replace a formal hierarchy with an informal one. Part of the self-organisation of groups is the natural stratification into leaders and followers, often with power struggles as part of the process. This isn’t necessarily a recipe for success.
A happy medium?
While removing middle management seems a drastic step for most organisations, not to mention a huge risk, this doesn’t mean that the only option is to continue with the traditional top-down approach to authority and decision making. In order to keep up with the changing expectations of employees, the way employers treat and manage their staff can – and must – change.
Rather than flattening the organisational structure completely, employers could rethink the traditional roles of managers and employees. This could mean that managers have to adapt to suit the needs of the modern workforce. Perhaps what employees need most is not someone to manage and supervise their daily work, but to motivate, encourage, guide and inspire them – a leader instead of a manager.
Such leaders might trust their teams more, and step back – where possible – from the decision-making process, allowing individuals to shine and grow in their roles, pointing them in the right direction when needed. In order for this to work, these leaders would need a very specific set of skills, and would have to undergo a very specific type of training for the role.
One thing is certain: organisations that fail to meet the needs and expectation of the changing demographic will find themselves left behind in the war for talent.