Success breeds growth, which breeds complexity, which breeds the need to order. This reality gives many companies a good reason to instill structure and order, and frequently that order is created in a hierarchical fashion. Too frequently, however, that hierarchical structure serves to not nurture employee engagement but rather impedes the employee engagement capabilities of the company.
One approach to address this paradox is to find a way to establish the structure and order necessary to manage a more complex organization without creating a dependency upon an organizational hierarchy. Can this increase employee engagement, and do so in a way that will not result in complete chaos? Gaming platform company Valve seems to think so, they have use no job titles and proudly report a culture that has no hierarchical infrastructure at all. In addition to this they are very transparent about their belief that hierarchies crush creativity and even give it a name in their freely downloadable employee guide book – flatland. A glance at their Glassdoor profile reviews seems to suggest those that like a title-less environment outnumber those that do not.
While a completely flat or title-less structure might not fit every company there are a number of benefits to eliminating the accompanying complexity that structure ironically introduces.
Skills and Contribution Over Seniority and Authority
Ordering teams and talent by simply a statement of their skill sets naturally helps to identify their area of focus and places a priority on the talent that each individual in the group posses. The individuals on the team become far more than “Sr. Software Engineer” or “Vice President of Software Development” they become the stewards of their knowledge as it impacts the strategic execution of the company’s plan. This also increases collaboration, because the group of people that posses the talent and skills as defined by the need of that talent or skill feel more empowered to contribute based upon that demand. Their credibility is established not by their title, which more frequently than not indicates longevity with the company, but by belonging to the group possessing that particular skill.
Self-Management and Accountability
A flat infrastructure tends to increase overall accountability. With no titles to hide behind, the daily contribution of the individual is evaluated against their mastery of their subject matter. The team of subject matter experts tends to keep one another honest. They see the reputation of the team as something to improve upon and project. Motivation of the individual, in this case, becomes less about the steps they need to take in order to methodically scale the hierarchy, and more about the bragging rights and increased credibility that comes along with successful completion of a project.
Increased Self Learning and Collaboration
This self management and accountability has the added benefit of having the team identify skill gaps that exist and creating a plan to continue the professional development of members of the team. This professional development is frequently found in cross learning between peers, shadowing in the interest of ongoing on the job training, and recommended educational investments that will benefit every member of the team.
These three benefits should provide enough value to consider any hierarchical flattening. Truthfully, however, a completely flat organization may not only be impractical for some companies but impossible. The impossibility of formally establishing a title-less company, however, should not preclude a company from gaining the value of increased employee engagement by injecting the spirit of a flat organization into the employment culture. Ultimately this sort of increased employee engagement is more about the way in which employees are empowered, and less about what the organization looks like on a sheet of paper.