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How does a company with no managers work? (Part 3)

10th Sep 2014
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What are the benefits of working in a flat organisation? Along with leadership and the drawbacks, this last blog in the series discusses the positives of working in a company without managers.

The responses I've received strongly suggests the topic of flat organisations is clearly something that interests many of you. On a personal level, it’s great to hear the varying opinions on the matter. As I stated previously, an entirely flat organisation isn’t a golden solution that should be adopted by everyone, but I do believe it shows that there are alternatives to traditional hierarchical structures.

Leadership

I’ve been asked repeatedly about leadership. There seems to be a consensus from some professionals that assumes that because we don’t have managers, there lacks leadership in our organisation.

This isn’t the case. In every project we undertake there are always employees that voluntarily take the lead and additionally, we’re given the opportunity to take the lead in projects outside our areas of expertise. For example, this could be for a planned event, HR related project, improving our internal feedback system, social media etc etc. We’re really encouraged to take up such tasks so that we can develop our leadership skills.

Alongside this, there’s a real emphasis placed on individual leadership. Leadership days are regularly organised for employees, and they're open to everyone. For those employees that wish to further develop, there are ample resources and the feedback system in place means that as employees, we receive regular, insightful feedback on our self-leadership.

The overall aim of the organisation is to help each employee develop their leadership skills. Rather than being over reliant on a few select individuals, the organisation aims to (and does) create a wealth of people with strong leadership qualities and perhaps more importantly, aims to create whole teams full of leaders.

The Benefits

There are several benefits of working in a flat organisation. Being given a voice and valued for your opinion are certainly a huge positive, as is the ability to choose which areas you would most like to develop yourself in. For me however, the number one benefit is the freedom to create and develop your own ideas.

I’ve had first-hand experience of working with the complete opposite. I used to work in the service industry and after some networking at an event, I was kindly invited by someone high up in the company to give my opinions about marketing. It was simply said if I ever have an idea, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the marketing department. A long story short, after several conversations with guests I developed a concept and sent an email to the marketing department outlining the idea, with a few managers of mine copied in the CC.

Within 60 seconds I received an email from one of my managers reminding me that she was my superior and stating that she should have been CC’d from the very beginning… Not exactly the response I was hoping for!

That wasn’t my only experience. In another of my previous jobs in the non-profit sector, I had a boss who gave me false hope. He would listen to my ideas with a nodding smile, and seemed positive about the fact that I took time to develop new fundraising ideas for the organisation. In fact it all seemed to be fine; until we sat down to discuss the idea in more detail. He listened to my ideas, nodded his head and then said:

“No. That won’t work”

No discussion why, no explanation and no room for negotiation- and this was all despite the fact that he’d been given repeated warnings that unless things changed, the organisation was facing a funding shortage that would close most of the projects and make several of us jobless.

I can’t tell you how frustrating that was, and how demotivating it became. Being in an environment now, where I’m allowed to develop my ideas, gives me such motivation, enthusiasm and makes work so much more interesting and exciting. In all honesty, the effect is such that it sometimes seems a shame that there’s not more working hours in the day.

The Drawbacks

From my experience I would say that working without managers brings two major drawbacks. The first is that because there are no managers, recruitment can be challenging because employees need such a specific skill set. To successfully work here you need to be pro-active, confident, communicative, independent, and you need to have a good foundation of self-leadership. Logically, such skills are not inherent to everyone.

In addition to general recruitment, we’ve also struggled in the past with the recruitment of senior members of staff. The lack of any kind of management role can be an obstacle for perspective senior staff. After 10 to 15 years of being in a hierarchical structure and managing people, it’s difficult for people to switch to the polar opposite. It’s something people are so habituated to that in reality, it’s very hard to stop.

The second major drawback is workload. As there are no managers guarding your boundaries for you and managing your workload. It becomes an individual’s responsibility. Increased freedom is great, but it’s not without its risks. On occasions employee’s enthusiasm gets the better of them, and their workload becomes too high. If this continues for too long, an employee's vitality can suffer. To combat this, we’re given help in the form of energy management sessions and due to the importance, the issue has become a real focal point for HR, the directors and the organisation as a whole.

One final thought

The way we work and the way we approach work has changed immensely over the last few decades. Technology has exploded into our lives, the balance between work and private has become increasingly blurred, and the demands of the modern employee are much different now than they were 30 years ago.

I don’t believe that traditional hierarchy currently meets the needs of the modern employee, and despite the drawbacks of new organisational structures, I think it’s time that more organisations seriously explored newer structures that better reflect today’s world of work.

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