The Flat Hierarchy Fallacy
With Culture becoming the forefront of most tech companies, many are championing the Flat Hierarchy structure in management. But what if this attempt to be more inclusive actually leaves more and more women left out.
Recently I was reading Elizabeth Uviebinené’s latest book titled “The Rest”. This book looks at how we work and how this can affect how we live and impact the greater community. Chapter two looks at business and what businesses could and should do to make work more meaningful. This chapter covers briefly Flat Hierarchy and has a case study from the founder of Proper. But upon reading, I wonder if the way we view Flat Hierarchy has since been skewed into a framework that no longer makes everyone feel included in a company, or more importantly, valued.
What is a Flat Hierarchy?
Within traditional businesses, an organisational structure is usually made up of a CEO or Founder, with multiple directors, then managers, and eventually employees. Within a Flat Hierarchy, the traditional tall structure is changed so that there are fewer people between the employees and the CEO or founder. In principle, this sounds great as there any advantages for the employees:
- It allows employees to have more responsibility in the organisation
- It removes blockers that management can create and ultimately and improves communication and the speed of projects for employees
- The employees have visibility of those at the top, meaning they feel more connected to the organisation, the CEO or founder isn’t faceless
Why Flat Hierarchy doesn’t work for women
So how does a Flat Hierarchy actually work in a business? Well, first off, it can mean there are no job titles and no seniority over other employees, if in a small team or company. On paper, this sounds like a great way to make things fairer for everyone; however, in reality, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
No authority = Power struggles
By removing the traditional structures and formalised hierarchies, a team has to create their own, even if off the record, which can be dangerous for a unit. Without a clear leader on a project or team, it can create a power struggle between two or more people, which will never lead to a healthy work environment .
When a power struggle occurs, it also puts women at a disadvantage within a group. Not only do they lack the authority to lead the project or team, but they may also be silenced or sidelined compared to their male coworkers, who may have a more insistent personality type.
By removing the traditional hierarchy, issues are also created for junior women in the workplace, as who do you go to with a problem? Who is there to tell you that you’ve done a good job or that you’re heading in the right direction? And this is a problem that has occurred in many companies, which can ultimately negatively affect the business. If there is no one to report to, then there is no accountability which means who knows if the work is getting done? How can we call out bad behaviour if we have no authority to do so?
No title = No respect
When people say job titles don’t matter, it’s usually because they are in a position of power or already respected.
For women, they are scrutinised at every point during their career. They are hired based on previous experiences rather than potential . Women are seen to be less knowledgeable compared to their male counterparts . And when it comes down to it, women are just treated differently at work compared to men.
And this is why job titles are so important. Using a flat structure that removes job titles creates a space where coworkers and management can assume your experience. If two people are both called a Frontend Developer, and a woman has six years experience, and the man has one year, but both have the same title. Still, it is expected that people will assume the man has the same if not more experience or knowledge as the woman. And it doesn’t stop here, as Emily Nakashima mentions in her article: Why Job Titles Matter If You Care About Diversity:
…Compounding the effect, we pick up on other employees’ perceived seniority by how other team members treat them, effectively spreading what could be a bias held by a small number of individuals to the whole team. Diverse employees are then forced to spend time individually proving their qualifications to each person on the team, rather than starting at presumed competence and working on advancement.
What could we do instead?
The ideology of Flat Hierarchy is there, and as I said on paper, it makes sense, but we need to focus on what we wanted it to achieve in the first place. If we're going to remove the number of layers of management to make communication lines more open, then focus on the top tier of management communicating openly via weekly or monthly all-hands meetings.
If we want to allow employees to take on more responsibility within the organisation, make that known and clear. For example, switching out project leads each time a new project lands on the table.
Just because we say there is no traditional management in place doesn’t mean those structures disappear. They are still very much there but unfortunately unregulated and therefore can become problematic. Those with the loudest voices rise to the top, and boundaries become blurred, which means the process becomes nonexistent. Stripping away titles and structure doesn’t help women advance in the workplace. It actually holds them back.
What do you think about Flat Hierarchy? Is there a way we can better implement it? Does it depend on the company? Let me know your thoughts! Get in touch or leave a comment as I’d love to hear your point of view. Find me over at Twitter @lizhamburger