Eric Mosley was quoted recently in an interview with Forbes, saying: “Organizations are changing. The way we work is changing. The top-down hierarchical approach is a dying legacy of the industrial era.” The implications of those dynamics are far-reaching for many HR and business leaders, especially those who are interested in improving upon the ways that modern organizations work.
Eric’s comments couldn’t be timelier, given teams-based research summarized in an Insights by Stanford Business article. That piece addresses the pitfalls specifically associated with top-down structures. I thought it helpful to summarize some of those findings, and speak to how I see organizations adapting to the changing face of business.
What are the 3 pitfalls of hierarchies?
According to the research mentioned above, when there is too much hierarchy:
- Levels of participation are skewed. Those in leadership positions often take up a majority of airtime. When participation does come from others, it tends to be spent agreeing with the leader as opposed to adding unique value.
- Individuals with the most applicable knowledge or expertise may not have the opportunity to contribute to decisions in those areas. Some of the research points to a tendency to listen to those with seniority over first-hand knowledge of the topic.
- A rush to agreement, without a healthy amount of debate. In the presence of a hierarchy, individuals are less likely to critically or constructively examine the assumptions the team is making and what the most effective solutions could be.
Many of these problems could be exacerbated as traditionally hierarchical organizations face the need to address more collaborative and dynamic expectations of workers. Fortunately, there are several practices that can help build a culture that avoids those pitfalls and supports individuals in bringing their most productive selves to work.
3 Practices for a Dynamic Workplace
- Leaders as coaches. While it is important for leaders to provide a clear and motivating vision of the direction the company or team should take, it is equally important to provide employees the autonomy to determine the specific path to that goal. This balancing act is critical in achieving greater levels of participation from a broader segment of the workforce.
- Crowdsourced performance. Teams and organizations are successful when there is a shared understanding of who knows what, and who has which skills and abilities. As roles become more fluid, that level of understanding can be difficult to achieve unless the company has developed a scalable, social solution for employees to contribute and share that knowledge.
- Recognition of differences and diversity. Constructive debate often comes from diverse perspectives and the ability to give voice to those perspectives. Greater participation and empowerment, as mentioned above, both help employees feel they have a voice. That sense is reinforced when peers are able recognize each other for diverse approaches that all contribute to organizational success.
Together, this set of practices can help create a culture of greater humanity in the workplace, ensuring that all employees can successfully participate, leverage their own unique skillsets, and provide their diverse viewpoints.
What is replacing hierarchy at your organization?
As Globoforce’s Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. He is the co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and his articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.