How organisational structures inform performance
When it comes to crafting the structure of your organisation to maximise performance, context is everything.
In recent years, there has undoubtedly been a trend to flatten organisational structures in a bid to challenge traditional notions of hierarchy. It has been widely assumed that this trend makes so much sense that there's no need to challenge it back.
Until now, that is.
Some new research has provided us with fresh insights on those structural preferences, going against the grain of our assumptions.
As explained at the Harvard Business Review, four academics studied inter-personal rivalries between Formula One drivers, and extrapolated from their findings that flat structures could actually worsen workplace conflicts.
“For those unfamiliar with Formula One,” the academics write, “the first thing to know is that F1 crashes are usually not random.
“It’s not that a driver makes an unforced error at breakneck speed; it’s that two drivers, locked in one-on-one opposition, goad each other into increasingly reckless moves. At some point, both lose sight of the bigger competitive picture, becoming more intent on overtaking their immediate rival.”
In the business world, they note, a parallel occurs: when two managers allow their rivalry to escalate into “public, tooth-and-claw conflict”, it spawns costly damage both to firms and careers.
After studying 506 driver clashes that led to race-ending collisions, the researchers concluded that collisions are “particularly likely among pairs of drivers who were roughly equivalent in status. That is, their competitive histories across the entire racing season looked similar.”
In terms of what this could mean for business, the researchers point out that flat management models such as holacracy “promise a pragmatic, rational antidote” to ego-driven behaviour.
“However,” they write, “our Formula One findings suggest that leaders intending to promote an egalitarian culture by flattening hierarchy, removing job titles and so on may inadvertently exacerbate competition, rather than reining it in.
“Trying to banish distinctions among colleagues may have the unintended consequence of increasing competition.”
These are interesting comparisons. But how relevant are they to the less dramatic and more mundane context of organisational life?
Such rivalry is not great for overall performance and, this study suggests that it is lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities that contributes to counter-productive behaviour.
So is it about hierarchy… or uncertainty?
If each employee understands the contribution they need to make, and standards are high for everyone, they’re disciplined, meet deadlines and go that legendary extra mile then you’ll stand out if you don’t raise your game.
Individual excellence working collectively will unleash a broader synergy that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Let’s look at what works within the context of how a specific organisation operates. Let’s look at the outcomes that the organisation intends to deliver, and let’s be clear about how we individually contribute to overall great performance.
Prior to joining The Institute of Leadership & Management Kate Cooper worked in the university sector. She has appeared on, amongst others, BBC Television, BBC Radio 4 and has a regular column in Dialogue magazine. She is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from her own research and...