Flat organizational structures: how to cultivate employee autonomy
If you have grown children, you undoubtedly have their independence at heart, to the point that you have probably spent a significant part of your life working hard to make them free and resourceful. Perhaps you even shed a tear when confident in their skills, they left the shelter of the family home and took their first tentative steps away from your care and protection.
You celebrated your children’s independence. So why not do the same for your employees? Too often, organizations maintain and value an ecosystem where the boss systematically plays the role of the authoritarian parent and becomes a single channel for endless decision-making, conflict management, and approval.
Rethinking structures to promote growth
Initiatives to flatten hierarchical structures into self-organized spaces are typically part of broader cultural transformations and organizational designs, where management by objectives, collaboration, and synergy is at the forefront.
Today, I’d like to propose that we borrow some practices from these innovative managerial trends to help us move towards a more flattened organizational structure, far removed from the authoritarian methods so rooted in our daily lives. Believe me, the benefits will be immediate and the commitment of your teams will reflect these benefits.
So, in this article we are going to explore two key themes and, more importantly, some simple tips to help you initiate the transition from vertical relationships (authoritarian parent) to flattened, professional adult relationships.
Democratizing education and training
Most companies offer their professionals the opportunity to participate in both internal and external training activities. However, during my visits to many organizations, I find a certain rigidity in the process:
- The development path is set out by Organizational Development teams (or Human Resources) and deviating from it is hardly an option
- When the opportunity to participate in sessions outside of the organization is offered, a mandatory approval process is initiated (often involving two different levels! - a direct manager and HR).
Why so little trust? Are we really worried that our teams will enroll in contemporary ballet classes? As Samantha Slade points out in her book Going Horizontal, having to go through rigid approval processes certainly lessens the desire to learn new skills.
Autonomy and community benefits
I suggest that you replace these highly hierarchical processes with new practices where no form of approval is required, instead offering directions on the allocated budget.
Add to this the duty of your teams to share with their colleagues the highlights of their training and you will stimulate a true culture of education, autonomy, and, above all, transparency within your teams!
Dozens of cumbersome and disengaging approval processes have become firmly entrenched in the organizations around us. As with learning, there are marked consequences on our teams’ initiative and creativity. It is high time to address it!
Transparency: an organizational culture to adopt
Generally, the organizations I advise tend to keep back certain information by default. I am sure that you regularly overhear requests like: “Can you share this file with me?”, “What are the highlights of your last management meeting?”, “Could I have access to that budget?” . We are cautious. As a habit, we don't share information transparently, either as a symptom of a culture of distrust or simply just in case.
I should perhaps point out that a culture change concerning information sharing is a long and tedious process. A number of fears usually arise from such a process and concerns about the sensitivity of certain information resurface.
But rest assured: I am not advising you here to share everything. It is simply a matter of becoming aware of our reflexes and identifying whether our decisions on information sharing are the result of personal discomfort or a response to a real risk to the organization.
Sharing failures as much as victories
The starting point for setting up a sharing structure is usually the verbalization of the failures, problems, and difficulties in the organization. Culturally, we tend to celebrate our achievements and keep our failures to ourselves
To practice identifying failures and learning from them collectively, a powerful tool that I advocate with my clients and my own teams is the post-mortem debriefing circle. Indeed, systematizing organizational learning by studying the strengths and weaknesses of our failures is a particularly effective continuous improvement strategy, as is adopting a coaching culture.
This exercise, which helps build your teams’ confidence in your leadership and the organization, is part of a flat organizational culture, where trust and accountability are valued and, above all, where unnecessary ego is set aside. And while sharing best practices contributes to team performance, sharing failures and difficulties is an equally powerful tool for group learning.
Are you the authoritarian type?
Having read this article, your challenge is now to try to identify the formal practices or cultural upheavals in your professional environment that are symptomatic of authoritarian practices. By identifying them and calling them by their name (vertical – authoritarian parent or horizontal – professional adults), you will be taking the first step towards change: awareness.
Here are some key readings if you want to learn more about the topics discussed in this article:
- Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. Sam Kaner. San Fransisco. Jossey-Bass. 2014
- Reinventing Organizations. Frédéric Laloux. Bruxelles, Nelson Parker. 2014
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