The Unleveling Wind

In a stunning turn of events, flat corporate structures might not be the optimal solution:

Disenchanted with the corporate world, many entrepreneurs strive to keep their organizations as flat as possible. But a recent study suggests that, in some cases, office hierarchies help employees get more done. And that too many dominant personalities could jam up the works.

The Findings

The study, conducted by researchers from the business schools at Columbia University and Northwestern and the University of Queensland, Australia, found that when there are tasks that require teamwork, people get more done when there are defined leaders and followers.

I once worked at a place that moved from a hierarchy to a flatter structure. Although this sort of structure is often promoted as egalitarian and allowing everyone to take a stake in the outcome, the result is often less Utopian. Sometimes, when everyone takes a stake, nobody takes responsibility, and when things go wrong the blame–if blame is due–is diffused. It can always be somebody else’s fault.

In other situations, flat hierarchy projects end up with the people who think it’s most important making the most effort and carrying along other extraneous people who hope to share in the success of the project or at least appear busy enough to continue drawing a paycheck.

Frankly, I favor an open communication hierarchy where members of the hierarchy have good relationships not only with their peers in the org chart but also with members of other levels of the hierarchy, mostly but not limited to people above and below you directly.

In that case, you know how to escalate things when things need to be escalated. In a team of equals, you get a chasing-the-rabbit-around-the-racetrack sort of effect, where someone can pass you off to someone else until you eventually find someone who wants to fix it or someone who cannot think of someone else to pass you to.

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