Leadership Structure: Hierarchical or Flat? Don’t Go Overboard Either Way

Back in the 1970s, a new concept called “flattening the organization” was introduced, which eliminates much organizational hierarchy and helps people at all levels collaborate and contribute on projects. It came about as a result of excessive levels of management that often got in the way of employee contribution and innovation.

While great in theory, this concept flounders in execution if taken to extremes:

  • Projects suffer and stall because no one has overall responsibility or authority for making decisions.
  • Without a point person to oversee and monitor the overall vision, no one has a bird’s-eye view of exactly how all tasks and sub-tasks fit together. This makes it almost impossible to identify the correct tasks, sequencing and timing.
  • Team members are continually demotivated by meeting after meeting where the same issues are re-hashed without sufficient progress (a.k.a. decision-making) to move the project forward or offer a sense of accomplishment and pride.
  • The company suffers as projects are continually late, over budget or completed incorrectly, due to a lack of sufficient accountability at every step; no one is accountable until the end, when everyone fails – and then begins pointing fingers.

As a result, many leaders have come to dislike the concept. But before tossing it out completely, consider the benefits a modified approach could provide for the organization and its members. The ability to allow lower level team members to collaborate and contribute on a larger scale, and helping them recognize a connection between their activities and the achievement of company goals are just two of those benefits.

The biggest issue is that solving problems by implementing extreme solutions often creates new problems… just because the solution is extreme. While there are exceptions where extreme measures are necessary, these are usually needed for a limited time only, to try to reverse a damaging situation or trend, or reach a very short-term critical goal.

In most cases, or once a critical situation is stabilized, more moderate measures should be used to drive the organization forward and engage all team members at a very high level.

This involves a combination of the best elements of both hierarchical and flat organizational structures, where leaders keep in mind that:

  1. Someone needs to step forward and take control of individual projects, maintaining the overall vision, budget, monitoring and assignment of tasks and duties.
  2. Leaders should ask for help from different individuals who are willing to step forward and take the lead on various projects. Constantly putting all responsibility on the same action-oriented go-getter may get several projects done, but burnout and resentment are likely and you risk losing that highly valuable employee. It also gives the impression of favoritism, as if that person is the only one you can trust to get things done.  When people feel they are not trusted (or valued), they stop trying to be trustworthy or valuable.
  3. If you aren’t sure of a person’s abilities, don’t assign them to lead a critical project, but do start involving them on more responsible elements of other projects. This will give you an ability to see what they’ve got while giving them an opportunity to spread their wings and start contributing on a higher level.

People want to be involved; they also want to know that what they do matters. The more we can help everyone understand how their role fits into the success of the organization, the more engaged and accountable they will be.

Companies often struggle with trying to reward their employees. But, outside of their monetary compensation and some occasional words of recognition and praise, giving them the opportunity to learn, grow and advance their careers is often the best reward leaders can give.

So, flatten your organization enough to get people at all levels involved and engaged in the success of the organization – just don’t flatten it so much that you strip everyone of any ability to get things done.

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