Why the traditional business hierarchy needs to be dismantled

The organisational hierarchy as we know it today was invented in the Industrial Age when the machine was King

Why the traditional business hierarchy needs to be dismantled

Efficiency, predictability and productivity were the name of the game and people were expected to fit, like cogs and wheels, into that machine. In most jobs we didn’t need their ideas, their opinions, their emotion or even their willingness to go the extra mile. They were paid by the hour to do what, eventually, we would get a machine to do if we could. In fact, their humanity got in the way.

The hierarchy was part of that machine thinking – “I do what I am told by my boss and my team do what they are told by me. Everything works according to a grand plan, and most people don’t need to do too much thinking. They are free to get on and ‘do’.”

But we aren’t in the Industrial Age anymore. Not only do today’s employees expect to share their opinions and be heard, to be empowered to make decisions based on their expertise and to work in a psychologically healthy environment, but we – their employers – need that from them too. However smart you are (and I’m sure you’re very smart), together you are smarter.

Hierarchy gets in the way of people doing their best work because it builds command and control in as the default. It gives you, the senior person, authority to overrule. And it creates dependency. If people know you’re willing to step in to take charge because they’ve seen you do it before, they won’t take full ownership. You will always be their backstop, meaning you’ll never be free of telling people what to do and supervising them while they do it.

Not only that, but there is a strong cultural acceptance that that’s what leaders do, that’s their job . After all, why do you get to call yourself a leader if you aren’t going to make the final call? We have had 250 years of organisational hierarchies. Even our education system was constructed to teach children early how a hierarchy works and how to operate within that structure. An expectation of hierarchy is hard-wired into our culture. We now have to unpick that.

In an SME you simply can’t afford to have any member of your team holding back anything they could offer out of respect for the hierarchy.  

I’m not advocating flat, self-managing business structures as the cure-all. There is no one business structure that addresses all ills and guarantees you’ll get the brilliance of the people you’ve hired every day. If only! But looking at all the ways you collude with hierarchical hardwiring is vital.

To break the hierarchy, you have to let go of being right, being ‘better than’. You have to recognise that you have information and experience but your job isn’t to gather information from others, combine it with your information and experience and then make a decision. It is to give away all the information and experience you have, add it to the pot of their brain and let them make the final call.

Whenever you can, push decision-making down as low as you dare. And then dare to push it lower. If it turns out that the decision didn’t work as planned, support them in thinking afresh and having another go.

At first, they won’t trust that you mean it. They’ve been taught that you’re the one who decides. They think that you’ll step in if they head down the wrong path. They think you’ll catch those typos before it goes to the customer. But if you consistently refuse to collude with these beliefs they will, in time, come to believe that you mean it. 

They will learn that your job isn’t parent, or teacher, or all-knowing superhuman, or protector. You are a thinking partner, wise counsel at best, another adult with whom they explore their ideas and access information they need, before deciding.

That’s how they learn and grow. That’s how they find a true sense that they make a difference. And that’s how you break the hierarchy which keeps people operating like second-rate machines so that they can become the first-rate humans that you hired.

Blaire Palmer
Blaire Palmer

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