Six months into her new job, my client was frustrated, depressed, and debating whether to leave. It was a stark contrast to how she felt just six months earlier. At first, Alicia had jumped at the opportunity to be part of the marketing team at a dynamic and promising startup. After 10 years with a traditional consumer goods company in the midwest, this felt like the perfect career move.
She had flown out to the west coast and spent time in the company office, experiencing the open, creative, and flat culture—a breath of fresh air, she thought, in contrast to her current workplace. By the end of the visit, she was sold. But now, she complained, the reality was far from the promise.
The collaborative, creative culture? Sure. But also chaotic and ambiguous. Too much collaboration meant no one owned decisions; accountability was completely lacking. And decision making involved grueling rounds of discussions that inevitably turned contentious and nasty.
Democratic and flat? Alicia quickly learned that there were hidden power structures. Gender differences were stark—the Vice Presidents, with the exception of one, were all men, and part of the early founders’ group. “It felt like high school,” she told me. “The influence you had depended on whether or not you were part of the elite in-group.”
A free and open culture? Sure. But also undisciplined and inappropriate. She learned to head home quickly on Fridays to avoid the weekly “beer-cart,” when things turned ugly, quick. Sexual jokes and horsing around often went too far, and if anyone complained they were simply reminded that it was “all in good fun,” and “that’s just how we do things around here”.
After 6 months, Alicia went back to her previous role. Boring? Perhaps. But for Alicia, the transparency, clarity, and buttoned-up culture now came as a relief.
Not all flat and open organizational cultures are like the one Alicia left. There are tremendous benefits to the flat organizational structure. Greater employee autonomy results in more job satisfaction, engagement, and employee motivation. Self-managing teams can accomplish more at greater speed and efficiency.
Egalitarian and flat cultures are created with the best of intentions. And yet, as Alicia found, just because your organization is flat doesn’t mean it can’t be toxic. As Uber, Zenefits, Vice, Google and similar high-profile incidents surrounding supposedly progressive organizations have shown, where power is decentralized, where informal norms apply, and where there are fewer layers of management, toxic behavior can and does still take root.
How did we get here? How did we fall prey to the notion that a flatter culture would necessarily be more humane and ultimately healthier?
It starts with two common misconceptions about hierarchy and power.
Myth #1: Only hierarchies can be authoritarian
It’s an assumption I hear frequently: hierarchical organizations are authoritarian. But in reality, authoritarian leadership styles are found in every kind of organization. In my work, I have witnessed autocratic behaviors in every sector and industry —from self-managed cooperatives to multinational corporations—and at every organizational level.
The good/bad dichotomy between flat vs hierarchical organizational culture misses the point that each has its purpose: just as there is a clear business case for a flat organization and empowered employees, there is also a clear business case for hierarchy.
For instance, flat, self-managing structures benefit collaboration, while hierarchy can enable greater specialization and coordination—and both can be productive and healthy. It depends on the context and manner in which they are employed.
Myth #2: Dispersed power is better power
Just as it’s common to assume that authoritarian leadership is the province of hierarchical organizations, it’s also common to assume that power in the hands of more people is automatically better used than power in the hands of the elite or powerful few. But is power pushed down a better use of power or just a different use of power?
While a flat company can encourage more creativity, it can also produce toxic office politics, bullying, and a culture of preferentialism. You don’t need a title or position to abuse your power. You have power by virtue of your loud voice, seniority, access to information, expertise, ability to influence others through charm, persuasion, intelligence, and—importantly—your social identity.
Therein lies the trouble with the ‘gospel’ of flat organizations: just because your organization is flat doesn’t mean it can’t be toxic. Where power is decentralized, where informal norms apply, and where there are fewer layers of management, toxic behavior can still take root in your organization and damage productivity, innovation, and your core company brand.
How Flat Organizations Become Toxic
- Power Hides (Transparency Dies)
In a flat organization, the ease of connection and ability to make decisions without having to defer to a manager can lead to quicker and more spontaneous decision-making. But the lack of management also means that decision-making is not always transparent, and that makes it hard to know who’s got the power.
When power resides in a manager role, you know who makes decisions, where to go for clarification, and what the processes are for decision making, performance evaluations, promotions, and the like. But when the manager role disappears, the source of power shifts from your position in an organization to less formal and more insidious sources of power: personal influence, insider status, friendships, and personal preference.
In the absence of managers, it can also be easier to assert social identity power, such as race, gender, age, and sexual orientation. All of these can ultimately lead to charges of bias, discrimination, and cronyism.
- The Loudest Voice Prevails
Flat organizations require greater coordination and group decision making, which can increase group conflict as there are more things, normally decided by a manager, to decide and discuss. Without conflict resolution skills, decision making can easily default to rule by the loudest, strongest, most senior, or most socially privileged members of the group.
This lack of coordination can result in a “Lord of the Flies” dynamic where the most aggressive individuals dominate others and sink organizational productivity. Toxic insider-outsider dynamics flourish under these conditions, leading to a kind of tribalism, and creating an exclusive, inequitable culture, if not in fact, then in feeling. People become distracted and consumed by these dynamics, leading to a loss of productivity and diminished morale.
Flat and informal organizations also reward those who are self-motivated, self-assertive, and comfortable working without much guidance. But they harm employees who need or want more coaching, support, and direction because there are fewer managers and often a weaker HR function.
Because people have to advocate for themselves more, this structure favors extroverts and those with more social boldness or sense of belonging. It also disadvantages newcomers, women, and minorities who may be less likely to ask for help and advocate for themselves, furthering a potential experience of inequity.
- Blurred boundaries
Flat and informal organizations, by definition, are more fluid and relaxed when it comes to roles and relationships. While this more open atmosphere can make work more fun and thus engaging, it can also lead to overly loose, inappropriate behavior, blurring of boundaries, and sexual relationships that present a conflict of interest. Informal banter can quickly devolve into sexual innuendo, inappropriate jokes, and gossip, creating a divisive and unsafe atmosphere.
- Lack of process
Organizations in highly competitive industries or startup environments also risk having a lopsided focus on sales and growth at the expense of compliance, governance, and training functions.
Early startups (and some hypergrowth companies) often decide to put their focus (read: money) on sales, marketing, and product development, and skimp on, or defer altogether their human resource functions. Processes for promotion, development, hiring, compliance, and training are given short shrift, or none at all. People aren’t given any training for managing others, or in the people skills necessary for working with and through others. Lack of training, lack of oversight, and lack of regard for compliance or due process is a disaster waiting to happen.
So what are some ways we can avoid these potential pitfalls awaiting every flat and modern organization?
How To Ensure Your Flat Organization Is Healthy
- Emphasize transparency
Toxicity and abuse of power flourish where transparency is absent.
Transparency is the difference between information being ‘available’ and information being accessible. Do you know where to go if you have a complaint, and do you know the process for how complaints get handled? Do you know the criteria for promotions or performance evaluations?
When people are informed, know where to go, and can look up the rules and guidelines for how things get done, they have more choice and power. It’s a safer culture. Where transparency is lacking, there’s a good chance that rules and guidelines are missing, or are set to favor a few.
- Set the tone at the top
Leaders set the tone. A company might have the most admirable and ethical value statement in the world, but when it comes to culture, actions speak louder than words. The culture of the company is stamped by the behavior of the leaders. Whether it’s a flat organization or a hierarchical one, how leaders behave determines how others will as well.
- Prioritize professionalism
For start-ups and companies in highly competitive industries, the pressure to grow quickly can mean prioritizing results above all else. But when companies hire only for growth, they often end up hiring the kind of people who go for the quick win, and place “results” above everything else—including culture. Hire people who act professionally and treat others well. Assess people on their non-technical skills (soft skills) and not just their technical skills. Have those who will work for a given candidate interview them as well. Results that undermine culture are never sustainable.
- Don’t skimp on people operations
When removing layers of management and bureaucracy means removing key HR, training, compliance functions, it sends the message that people’s well-being doesn’t matter. Human resources and people operations should be a priority, not an afterthought. And it should be first and foremost there for employees, not to defend or protect the organization. It must be seen as a place where people can go to get help and support.
Precisely because there are fewer layers of management in a flat organization, and thus more interaction, there is also a greater need for people skills training. Having to work so collaboratively across many roles and functions means everyone should get training in the non-technical skills of collaboration, teamwork, conflict management, giving and getting feedback, and the like. It sounds paradoxical, but a good rule of thumb is this: the fewer managers, the more management training necessary.
The promise of the flat organization, and the potential it offers to both culture and productivity is still alive. But for this promise to become reality, there needs to be training, processes, and a leadership team that models the humane and healthy behavior inherent in that promise.
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