Moving away from hierarchy doesn’t have to entail a full organizational redesign, though there are many benefits to flatter organizations. It can also be a shift in the quality of our relationships, a move towards collaboration, partnership, and valuing expert power before or as much as positional power. It requires clueing into where power over people dominates the relationship or interaction, and instead shifting to power with people. It typically leads to adopting a self-management model where everyone has agency to manage their own work and supervisors serve primarily as coaches, human developers, and resource finders. It means thinking critically about who is best positioned to make a decision or a recommendation (hint: it’s much less often the boss than we assume). It also requires thinking more expansively about performance because in order to honor the brilliance of others, we have to accept that good work isn’t going to look just one way, or our way.
The hardest part about moving away from a hierarchical approach is giving up power. Our survival instincts kick in, and the more we dominate, the safer we feel. One common worry I hear (and, full disclosure, have felt myself) is that if someone supervises fewer people, manages fewer budgets, or is responsible for fewer decisions, then they’ll be less essential and if/when lay-offs happen, they’ll be on the chopping block. That’s a legitimate fear and a learned response, and there is no simple answer. At the root, that fear comes from a scarcity mindset, that there isn’t enough for everyone. Organizations have to create an abundance culture and supporting systems (like financial reserves) in the workplace, establishing trust and transparency so that employees feel safer taking risk. Eventually, as culture shifts and the benefits of power sharing saturate the organization, the perception of personal risk goes down. At the same time, as employees we all have to be challenging ourselves out of our comfort zone, reconnecting with what we can contribute given our talents, strengths, and interests. It’s not all up to employers and organizations.
It took me a long time to understand that it’s 1,000% okay to have all the feelings about giving up power. It is completely natural, and feelings don’t make anyone a bad or greedy person. What’s important is to recognize that those feelings are about you. Engaging with those feelings is the work you need to do. Other people around you, especially those with less status, privilege, or access, are not responsible for your feelings and expectations, and they don’t deserve to be held back just so that you don’t have to confront yourself and your belief system. Instead of acting on those feelings, consider: Where are these feelings coming from? What am I holding on to? Why? How is it serving me? How is it serving my organization and colleagues? How might giving up power enrich my life and experience? What impact would it have on others? What’s one small way I can practice giving up power?
Stepping into power can also elicit feelings. It demands vulnerability and taking more responsibility for our work. In a shared power model, it doesn’t serve the group to say “that’s above my paygrade.” Certainly, the organization has a responsibility to ensure that employees have the resources, skill-building opportunities, team and managerial support, and fair compensation to show up with agency and a sense of responsibility to the whole. But, again, being in power with one another is a two way street.
When we finally enact change, we have to stop ourselves from throwing our hands up the minute it feels hard or chaotic and reverting back to the way things were. Not only is learning a new way and shedding an old way a lot of work for our brains, but also comfort and ease are not requirements for good or meaningful work. Change is probably not going to feel easy or comfortable, and it hardly ever looks seamless. Even the smallest change surfaces tiny reinforcing loops, and it’s so easy to draw the conclusion that too much is falling between the cracks — it’s just not working! Have you ever, for example, moved your mugs to a different cabinet? How many times did you open the old cabinet before your brain finally got it? Did you give up and move them back (my mother-in-law did that, but to be fair, I moved her mugs without consulting her)? Or, if the tape refills are moved from the copy room to the office supply room, you might see a bunch of requests for tape refills on next month’s office supply order. Change is complex; there are going to be unintended effects and there will be some scrambling.
We are resilient beings. It’s not easy, but we can shift out of a status-reinforcing mentality, reject a scarcity mindset, challenge our own assumptions of career and success, and make room for other people. If we don’t, chances are we’re getting in the way of our own potential, the potential of others, and the mission and purpose of our organization.