Not Such Flat Hierarchies After All

One of the buzz phrases of the early years of this century was flat hierarchy. Hierarchies were to be abolished! They stank! Layers were to be removed! And all organizational problems would be solved at a stroke.

How strange then to find that hierarchy is alive and well. The layers have crept back in.

A coaching client is describing the frustrations of his job. He is a lively, talented man but feels that there are invisible ropes preventing him from implementing anything much. He has ‘targets’ but, mysteriously, it seems impossible to meet them. He agrees a particular course of action but then nothing happens – or if it does, it happens with such a massive time interval that the need for that particular thing has dissipated and a new problem has taken its place. This is a man in a senior role and with an impressive sounding title in a large public sector organization. I give him a bowl of pebbles of different sizes and ask him to arrange them symbolically according to where he sits in the official structure. Soon he and I are helpless with laughter. My table is barely big enough to accommodate the many layers of his department. There are six levels above him and six below and that doesn’t include non-managerial people such as PAs. Some of these so-called ‘managers’ have all of two people to ‘manage’ or in one case, none. They all have nice titles though, Senior this, Executive that, Head of something, Director, Deputy Director of another thing, Associate Director. Every decision seemingly has to pass through the filters of many other people’s in-boxes and each inbox could represent a delay of anything from a few hours to several weeks if the person happens to be on holiday and is sensibly not reading emails.

These ridiculous hierarchies develop for what may seem like good reasons at the time. Bosses like to create what they fondly describe as career ladders, even if the rungs of these ladders are so shallow that no one could truly tell the difference between one and the next, with minute additional salary but no true additional responsibility. But the real reason is having the wrong people in the wrong places. Bureaucratic layers grow as a response to incompetence. If you have clung on to poor performers, the temptation is to work around them by adding barriers to their freedom with endless checks on what they do.

In many cases it would be sensible for these layers to be dismantled. In my client’s case there were twenty people involved. Of these twenty, his own estimate is that six do nothing of value – they merely process paper from each other and three of them are renowned poor performers. Of the twenty, he feels that there are at least another four who are incapable of doing the jobs they have been hired to do. If some judicious moving on were to happen this would leave a group of around 12 who could all report to one person. The boss would then have a proper job and could delegate appropriately. More would get done. People would feel more motivated and stretched. Service users would benefit because their needs would be met more quickly and efficiently.

When these meaningless hierarchies are created, the results are dire. A culture of fear and blame develops. People understand that their own freedom to act is severely limited. They quickly become skilled at delegating upwards moaning all the while about the lack of enjoyment in their work. The poor performers hang on in there denying a place to the good performers who should be replacing them. The existing high performers get thoroughly demotivated and leave. The senior people become a decision bottleneck for their staff because no single person can make all the decisions that now need to be made. Or else they end up doing the jobs of the people one level below them, neglecting their proper jobs, meaning that there is no one making strategic decisions at the top. Soon the whole organization becomes dysfunctional and its performance suffers catastrophically.

My client realised that he could not single-handedly rescue his organization from the labyrinthine stranglehold on action that it had created.

He left.