The Death of Workplace Hierarchy


“[Hierarchies] are not very good at mobilizing effort, at inspiring people to go above and beyond.” Gary Hamel

The ubiquitous organizational hierarchy is a relic. It’s heaving from over use and exhaustion. It slows communication. It slows decision-making. It slows input. It discriminates against new talent and advocates for the familiar. Productivity slides backwards. Fresh ideas are stifled in hierarchies.

Hierarchies were useful to control employees when they could be easily replaced. Today it takes more than holding a job to motivate employees. They want to unleash their strengths, apply their passions and work alongside others who do the same.

In time, rigid hierarchies too often controlled by personality at the top will be outdone by nimble organizations that give power to teams. This paradigm shift gives the competitive advantage to businesses that leverage the collective talents of their people. Quite simply, organizations cannot thrive in today’s dynamic business world with outdated structures that celebrate the individual at the top of the pyramid.

The workplace doesn’t need to be a place where businesses die. Our workplaces have squeezed out all usefulness from hierarchy. It’s merely a familiar construct we hang onto even though it’s crippling innovation. Though it’s depleting optimism in our workplaces.

It’s time for the hierarchy to adapt to today’s business realities. We need more democratic work environments where employees’ input is sought in areas once reserved for a select few: strategy, operational improvements, culture change, for example.

Hierarchies were useful to control employees when they could be easily replaced. Today it takes more than holding a job to motivate employees. They want to unleash their strengths, apply their passions and work alongside others who do the same.

It’s more than seeking employees’ inputs, however. Replacing hierarchy means putting employees at the table co-creating solutions with managers, if they exist, to drive business results.

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Maria

    Thank you Shawn, great way to describe what is going on now days. Times are changing and companies needs to pay attention and make modifications in the way they do business inside their organizations.

  • Tiina Niskanen

    This makes me think about “swarm work” among other things, see eg

  • Another great post Shawn. Really love this one. The big dogs just don’t want to listen to what we have to say. A lot of ego and fear. Some great stuff here, my friend.
    Take care brother. Hope to get together one day. You know I had lunch with Ted over in Naples. Great time.

  • Hierarchies, like silos, are probably not going away. Humans are social animals and it seems the reptilian part of our brains drive the need for them. That said we desperately need to stop being slaves to hierarchies.

    Every business model is different so some may thrive without clear hierarchies, e.g., pure digital businesses. Conversely, if you tried to operate an oil refinery without hierarchy explosions would happen regularly. At the exploration level, i.e.,
    finding the oil, too much hierarchy prevents discovery.

    It’s interesting that since Steve Jobs untimely departure, Apple has struggled with the new hierarchy that fell into place. Jobs was the ultimate uber brand / product manager and his messy hierarchy worked really well. Now that there’s no
    clear leadership around the product component things like innovation appear to
    have slowed down. Oh well!

    How about we decree that every organization plan has to have a hierarchy statement. Let’s at least make it a conscious competence, instead of an unconscious incompetence.

  • Pingback: The Death of Workplace Hierarchy | red rabbit skills services | skills development consultancy()

  • This is precisely why social technologies in the workplace matter so much. If we don’t have hierarchical command and control structures (let’s face it, they were adopted by the industrial revolution from military structure), we need another way for teams to come together and create value.

    We wrote a detailed piece on the how and why of social media’s role in this:

  • Christopher Hayes

    Agree with the overall premise, and knowing who those folks who are able to help regardless of positions and titles are key when moving around hierarchy’s, the “connectors”. However in large organizations, silos are the norm unfortunately for command and control. The model needs to change.

  • Jeff

    Silos are, in fact, going away. The restructuring that Stan McChrystal did as commander of JSOC addressed this very issue: moving individualized organizations towards a network-like structure that shares consciousness and purpose, and therefore pushes decision-making down to the lowest level (ie those closest to the problem). Funny how the very organization that imposed the hierarchical model also paved the way towards a new one.

  • Pingback: Flatter Organizational Structures Nurture Engagement And Empowerment | Confab()

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