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Turn the hierarchy on it’s head…

July 1, 2011

Having just finished reading  and been inspired by ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett about the detrimental effects of unequal societies I got to thinking about what happens if you apply this kind of thinking to organisations.  However we frame it the majority of large organisations work within some kind of hierarchy and therefore implicit within this is some kind of  inequality. Now we know that hierarchy does have an impact and in terms of organisations  and this can be both positive and negative.  Positively it enables staff working with an organisation to be very clear about the chain of command and therefore the chain of decision making.   However, the impact of a well defined hierarchy is that if decision making is always passed up the chain, staff become dis-empowered and potentially  have less flexibility in their working and tend to stick only in their job roles and responsibilities – laying the pathway to succession planning problems. Worst of all, it sets up the potential for issues not to be shared and problem solving to happen from afar and imposed on those delivering  services or producing the end product. When I have experienced this in some of the organisations that I work with, the psychological distance between staff and managers is palpable, noticeable in the body language, the words that people use, speaking in generalisations about ‘The Management’ and within the culture – feeling as if you would be blamed for unidentified (or even because of the blame culture – hidden) problems that inevitably (given the structure) only become apparent when they become painful issues

Now the answer to this is not easy and yet the organisations that I work with who have an ability to let go of the hierarchy and realise that it is merely  a construct, an illusion  gain the benefit of being able to focus on the outcome and are clear about what it takes to achieve.  They seem to have the ability to hold the paradox of having both clarity of role and be able to work beyond role definition.  This gives staff who work in these organisations the permission to innovate, something which role freedom often brings yet still be clear about the outcome expectations of the role. The defining characteristics of these organisations is, more than anything, the confidence to let go of hierarchy and hold the belief that ‘we are in this together to deliver this outcome’. It is a move beyond  performance targets and towards deliverable benefits. As opposed to putting in place processes that serve to maintain the status quo.

So how do you move towards a ‘we are all in this together’ culture? I believe that the first step towards this is the ability to let go of status as a definition of power and success and a move to a deep understanding of what the role is there to deliver. Now many organisations may talk this talk yet few actually walk the walk – and if they did the hierarchy would be turned upside down and the first indication of this might be in organisation charts, with those that are actually delivering being at the top of the tree, with other roles explicitly set out to support those delivering. Changing the organisational chart may be just changing a piece of paper, yet this can send a powerful psychological message and if followed through may change power relationships within organisations and set the conditions for real conversations to take place…..



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