WOW 172 | Reducing Hierarchy


“Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with the soil to bring flowers on the earth.” – Amit Ray, Enlightenment Step by Step.

In this episode, Jane and James dive into reducing the hierarchy in a team. They tap into the power distance and the leadership deference within a hierarchical organization. Jane mentions reducing hierarchical behaviors in a team allows everyone to feel more ownership and engagement. James and Jane also share the elements you should be wary of losing when reducing hierarchy. Learn more from this episode to manage your teams effectively with James and Jane.

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Management Challenges: Reducing Hierarchy In A Team

Here we are with another episode. What are we doing today?

We are doing another one of our management challenge episodes. For those of you who’ve been tuning in regularly, you’ll know that we have been doing a little mini-series of episodes where we have explored some of the common challenges that either we’ve come across as managers or that our clients come across regularly or show up in managers’ experiences.

We’ve been doing a little bit of a very personal reflection on how we might approach them and what we think about them and whether we’ve experienced them. We’ve done this based on a little bit of feedback we’ve had from some of the audience saying, “We’d like to learn a little bit more about how you go about meeting some of those challenges.” It has been a fun way of exploring some of the things that you and I talk about in our client work quite a lot.

That personal reflection point is key. We are working through this stuff out loud with a lot of it as we go through. We touch base to figure out what we’re going to talk about, but a lot of us are processing at the moment as well. It’s fun to do something a little bit different. We have a different challenge for you in this episode. The headline for the challenge is something like Reducing Hierarchy In Teams. The context we’ve laid out is that you as an individual have just moved into a new team as a manager of that team. It’s not a huge team, but there’s a reasonable size in it and the team is performing pretty well. No big issues there, but the team is quite hierarchical.

There’s a bit of a power distance between the people at the top and the bottom. Junior people don’t speak up. There’s a difference there. It’s all a little bit hierarchical. You’ve been brought into this team because you’re not a particularly hierarchical leader. You talk through your interview process. That’s not what you’re about. You’re not about hierarchy. That’s not who you are and you’ve been brought in on the basis that you’ll try and shake that up a little bit, bring in a little bit more of that voice from people. Make it a little bit of a flatter feeling type of team in terms of relationships.

There’s no scope to change job titles or formal structures or anything like that. You’re not doing that. There are ways of working types of things. That’s for context. If you choose to accept this quest, you are heading off to try and predict the hierarchy in that team. That’s our context. Before we explore that a little bit more, a couple of questions. Have you got anything you want to build on like what we mean by hierarchical on the team? Do you want to flash that out a little bit or bring it to life?

For me, when we talk about hierarchical organization or hierarchical team, we’re talking about a structure that has multiple layers. It has usually a top-down approach maybe if you were going to compare it to other teams that weren’t as hierarchical with a longer chain of command. More distance traveled through positions from the top of the team to the bottom of the team or the top of the organization to the bottom of the organization.

Generally, what you see next to that is people having a quite narrow span of control and smaller numbers of subordinates instead of employees or team members. For example, if you’re in a team of twelve people, you might see that you have 1 leader and 2 people. Under those 2 people, they might each have 3 people, and some of those 3 people have 1 person each. It’s multiple layers within a smaller number of people. Whereas in a less hierarchical team, you might have 1 leader and 4 direct reports, and each of them has one person.

You get those steeper and narrower structures. For me, that’s a little bit in there as well about deference to leadership. It’s hierarchical like the boss is super boss and you don’t challenge them. You defer to them. You use your voice a little bit less. What they say carries more, or maybe you’re a bit feeling unable to step up and challenge in some of those spaces. That’s the flavor words that I bring into that space.

If you asked me for a definition of what hierarchical meant in a neutral sense, it would be what I told you about my experience of hierarchical organization. If you were having a chat with someone that said, “My organization is quite hierarchical,” I think what they’re talking about is that chain of command but also the deference to leadership, the top-down element of it, and the very command and control end of the leadership spectrum or management spectrum.

The important conversation around this is not that it’s right or wrong. It’s about if you have decided you want to reduce it, then how do you go about it? There is a place for it. Largely for most organizations, an element of hierarchy is helpful. We’ll talk a little bit about why there are certain elements you need to be wary of losing when you reduce hierarchy. Generally, when we talk about organizations in the chat with colleagues, clients, and peers, when they say, “My organization is hierarchical,” what they mean quite often, it’s relatively bureaucratic. I’ll definitely sign off. It’s not necessarily micromanagement but a very limited span of control.

You have total control over this little bit here but only this little bit here. Anything that you stray beyond that, we need to talk about it and ultimately I’ll decide as your manager whether that happens or not. It’s quite often the stuff that comes with command and control rather than the hierarchy itself. We’re going to talk about not just the literal definition of what it is and how you introduce it, but also how you reduce some of those behaviors that are often associated with hierarchical teams.

There can be some good benefits to having a strong hierarchy. You can maybe get certain things done quickly potentially because you say it and it’s done. In some instances that can be a helpful thing certainty for some people. There are some benefits there.

A well-organized hierarchical organization often has the highest levels of clarity in who does what that we see and has well-honed processes. It’s quite not always but quite often. It brings within other issues. There are some things that hierarchy lends itself very well to, particularly when you think about high-reliability industries and jobs where there are variations of skill level. In stressful times or in times of stretch or pressure, it is important always irrespective of the level of hierarchy in an organization that everyone knows who is meant to do what.

WOW 172 | Reducing Hierarchy

Reducing Hierarchy: A well-organized hierarchical organization often has the highest clarity in who does what. We see and have well-honed processes quite often.


As we’ve alluded to, there are reasons why we might want this hierarchy. We’ve talked about that a little bit, but if we think about the situation or this context that we’ve set out where we’re looking to reduce the hierarchy in a team the way that hierarchy feels. Have you been there? Is that something you’ve done?

Yes. Probably by now, if you’ve tuned in to some of our episodes, you’ll know usually one of us has had the experience of this. That’s why we are talking about it. We’re like, “I’ve been there.” I’ve been the person who has been managing and imposed a relatively hierarchical structure in a team and wanted to reduce it. I have been responsible for it rather than being new, which is a slightly different context, but I’ve also been through that.

I’ve also walked into organizations and have been like, “Stay in your lane than I was expecting.” I’ve walked into organizations and they’ve met me. I was in the interview room. They met me. I’m not a stay-in-your-lane person. They’ve had an appetite to be more agile or flexible in the sense of who does what and particularly how they embrace employees’ voices and employees’ challenges and stuff like that. When I’ve got in, I’ve been like, “I think they might have underestimated or undersold how significantly hierarchical this organization is.” It would be fair to say. What about you?

I’ve not done it so much going in as a manager of a team. I’ve done quite a bit of consultancy work around supporting the reduction of layers in the organizational hierarchy. It is shifting from a steeper pyramid-type organization down to a flatter organizational structure. It works a lot in spaces where people are trying to remove some of that middle management there that exists in lots of places and flatten the structure. Through that, one of the things that need to happen to support that effectively, and that a lot of work has been done, is increasing the voice of more junior people as they get closer to more senior, and helping them feel less hierarchical than their behaviors and approaches to the things they do. It is an enabler of change of structure, as well as a cultural goal in itself.

I’ve worked with a lot of leaders who’ve been trying to do that, but at the functional level where they’re looking across a whole load of teams and as individual managers or heads of teams who are going through organizational changes where they lose a bit of a layer middle management as well. I’ve done it from that perspective. It’s interesting. It’s a fun little puzzle to explore. They have great benefits to it.

We chatted at the beginning about the benefits of hierarchy but when we were talking about different types of teams, sectors, or work, there are more advantages to hierarchy. In some worlds, some types of purposes of teams, functions of teams or sectors, there are real benefits to stripping that out as well. That call out that you made about the sector is important.

I also think about where work happens and where there are organizations where work is locational. I’m thinking for example hospitals. You might want multiple layers because you might want multiple layers of expertise to sign off on certain things, but not want everybody there all the time. I’m thinking about construction and things like that, whether there are responsibilities on site. It’s certainly helpful for overall responsibility to create a journey where people can gain experience and skills, and move through the stages of taking responsibility.

Particularly in big construction sites and stuff like that, it can be incredibly helpful to have quite a clear multi-layered system because you can distribute the risk and manage it. It allows you, if you have regular freelance work or regular people who are not fully contracted, to have that more hierarchical approach. It’s not necessarily thinking about them as a member of the workforce permanently. You are thinking about, “How do I make sure they’re clear on what they need to get done because they might not be here tomorrow, next week, next month, or whatever it is?”

There are certain elements of those areas. The military is constantly evolving its thoughts on how they are both innovative and self-reliant whilst also having that clear chain of command. It’s not a straightforward question but for us, we regularly work with people who are not in that world. We are not in locational work. We’re doing mostly computer-based knowledge work. We think there’s an opportunity to reduce hierarchical behaviors in this team so that everyone can feel a little bit more ownership and be more engaged.

Reduce hierarchical behaviors in this team so everyone can feel more ownership and engagement.

I’m going to ask a question that is related to that after having talked about it. Is this right for all types of teams? I was going to talk about that and see what we think. I think we’ve just dealt with that. It seems like some teams are great or some sectors are great, and some teams are not. Let’s put that to bed as our first retrospective question.

I’m going to add something to that question response though, which is right for all managers at all times. I think there are conditions where some managers are much better and more comfortable with it. If you are a very time-stretched team in the middle of a very heavy piece of work or a very overstretched team, trying to introduce it at that point can be incredibly difficult.

That sounds tough. If we’re going to go in and do this, we get dropped in, we’re this new manager. We’re like, “I’m your new manager here. We’re going to do this.” Do we need to chat with them about doing this? Do we need to set out that we’re going to be intentionally trying to change our hierarchy or do we just stop this?

There are two things that need to happen. You need to talk to people about it, but what I would say is something like this. You have to understand what it’s like to exist in a hierarchical organization. Particularly if it’s a well functioning one, they will be used to people saying, “Here’s the plan. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s your job in it. Here’s how long it’s going to take and what we want it to look like.” If you are going to go from that to something different, you have to start from there from where they are. You do have to talk to them but you do have to at least outline your intention and play under their existing rules.

If that team has always been hierarchical and their boss has always done that for them, that is where you start. You might say, “I’m going to leave the door open and your job is to challenge me a little bit more than you’ve done before. I’m going to come and I want you to talk to me about this. I’m going to come to you and talk to it.” That’s great. You still have to play by the rules they’re engaging in at the time, which is, “I’m going to lay this out as if you would’ve heard about any other project. This is where I am. This is what I think. This is why I think that. This is what I’d like to do.” The change comes with, “What do you think about that?” It only works if this is something you want.

That’s a fairly de-hierarchical question right here. Getting all methods on them by immediately getting people to step into that non-hierarchical space.

You’re making them feel safe. If you have always been given clear instructions about what your role is in any specific conversation, then you’re going to be quite intimidated if someone comes in and goes, “We’re going to work out how this looks together.” I’m going to be like, “I don’t have to do that. It’s not my job.” My first response will probably be, “That’s not my job. That’s your job.” I’m used to thinking about, “Whose job is it?”

I’m going to ask you one question because I scribbled a phrase, “I like it so I’m going to use it,” but we might end up getting it and decide, “If we’re going to do this, I hypothesize and postulate that we need to have some conditions for success beyond that for our team.” To rephrase the for people is, “If the conditions aren’t right, will the existing organization’s wider cultural immune system come in, attack you, and make it hard for you to be this hierarchical team if the wider organization is not ready?” I wanted to say cultural immune system because it’s like that.

As soon as you said it, I stopped listening to the actual question. This is how distracting that is. The audience will recognize this. James has used an interesting new phrase, I’m trying to decide if I like that phrase. It’s a metaphor for what we’re talking about or not, rather than thinking about the question.

Conditions for success. Do we think that the wider organization needs to be ready?

I think it’s more like Star Wars force field protection. You launch and try something. The force field comes down and goes, “No, that’s not our atmosphere.”

You snuck into it and you were in there and they were trying.

I have experienced this personally as a manager in organizations that are quite high themselves as wholly hierarchical, and who have an appetite or have expressed an appetite to be less hierarchical but haven’t done anything about that much yet. We do know about there are espoused values. It’s okay if the organization isn’t like that, but you do need sponsorship and space from your senior leadership to exist differently.

One of the things that I would say is a whole team joined at once to an organization I joined many years ago. I wasn’t a manager but the manager was a much more experienced manager, but much less experienced in the particular project that we were going to be working on. The whole organization is highly hierarchical in both senses, both loads of layers and also all the behaviors we talked about. We had a project sponsor who was a bit of an umbrella for us. They protected us and allowed us. They said no, “I will fight for you to be able to structure your team differently.”

We went to matrix-based management. Immediately, we went in. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it’s like where you might have a line manager but you work on projects with lots of other people. The three managers in the department equally discussed each six months who is going to work on what, and how we are going to build teams together. It was great because everyone learned fast because you would move from different sub-teams to different sub-teams.

The brokerage deal was if you can get this big piece of work done and you can do all the other work that this team is meant to do, I will defend your right to be different from the rest of the organization. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without that because none of us had a voice. There were many layers down. There were already three layers between us and the leadership. It wasn’t a big organization. We wouldn’t have been able to do it because sooner or later, someone would’ve said, “No because you need one person doing that. You can’t have two different people come to that meeting. It’s one person to that meeting.” For me, that was a massive learning.

I remember he was off for a month at one point. He had family very far away rather than have two weeks off at a time, he used to take a month. This was before remote working. This was way before the internet. It was that good. It was a nightmare. It was awful because someone else takes care of our team effectively and was so hierarchical. I couldn’t cope with the three of us reporting in. He was like, “Where’s your leader?” We were like, “He leads on projects. He leads on digital. She leads on teamwork and operation.” He was like, “No, someone has to be in charge.”

There are pieces around conditions and there are probably other conditions. The organizational readiness for that type of stuff is there. I’m sure there are other stuff. Maybe we’ve got to park first a little bit. What are you going to do? You’ve just got a team. You’re there. What are you doing?

I just got there and they’re all looking at me wide-eyed because I told them what I want to do.

I don’t know if you told them what you want to do. You’ve asked them for some thoughts on it. Can you imagine?

James is good at the beginning of things. In terms of building relationships and understanding how not to rush in, there’s a little chance that I might do. I’m trying to learn from that. What I would probably say to them is, “Nothing is going to happen straight away.” I probably would use a very structured controlled change. That would be what I would expect from a hierarchical organization, and change done to them. I would probably say, “I’m not doing anything straight away and I’m not going to ask you to do anything straight away.” What we’re going to do is, it depends on the pace of the organization, every couple of weeks, we’re going to put time aside to talk about probably three things.

One is interdependencies and areas where we could step outside of our lane a bit more. Who would we like to work with or get help from, and things like that? Learning. What do we have an appetite for learning to do that we can’t do at the moment within the broader or higher levels? That’s at whatever level you’ve got. If you’ve got three layers in your team, I would be having that conversation with all three layers because we’re trying to think about how we can do that. Those are very practical spaces where their appetite is.

I would be thinking about probably psych safety as a model. I would be thinking about what is it that I can role model and pay attention to as a leader right now to demonstrate and start to, without changing anything about their structure or anything about their workload, set the intention for how I want to communicate with them as a group, and how I want them to communicate with each other when I’m there in that group, and how I want them to treat me. I can show that I don’t want to be considered and treated as different in that conversation.

You don’t want to be on a pedestal.

I would leave the decision-making well alone. We’re talking about conversations where it’s ideating and it’s lessons learning. We’re talking about exploring conversations, not decision-making conversations. You have to leave them for a little while. Those are the three things I would do. I would explore their appetite for learning, spaces where they could collaborate or cross over or step out of their lane, and then me doing legs and prep work of this is what it’s going to feel like and this is how I would like it to feel when I’m in the room. Much further down the road, you start thinking about how you want them to be when you’re not there.

Start thinking about how you want your team to be when you’re not there.

As you were speaking a little bit about beginnings, you got me thinking about the beginning. I scribbled down maybe go out to lunch. I remember Ed because he comes up with a lot of this stuff. He said, “You’re there. How can you work with people and make decisions unless you chill a little bit?” I’m paraphrasing it, but it struck me. Once you’ve eaten some food or done something and had all those chemical changes of different social contexts and all that stuff, it makes it easier.

One of my reflections on learning from working with senior people trying to do this is a lot of the senior people that I’ve worked with know that they want to be more approachable, relatable, and connectable. They find it hard to do that. Not all of them but some. They find it hard to diminish their presence and themselves so that they are less imposing, especially less about the power presentation that comes with their years of success and achievement, and trying to help them become that relatable person. Diminishing their own sense of hierarchy is a difficult thing.

When we’re talking about this hierarchy, there are a lot of things we can do to help people who are maybe more junior to structure and develop the skills and step up the hierarchy so they feel more assured to face up. The other side of this is getting senior people to say, “I’m going to diminish all the barriers that I unconsciously impose in these types of world and relationships that make me aloof up on this pedestal.”

Working to come down off that piece of positional power, historical power, or structural power so that hierarchy falls away through your actions is helpful. Taking everyone out for lunch and just chatting about stuff. People are stressed because they’re like, “I’ve got stuff to do and you’re making me go for lunch.” You’ve got to navigate through that. Maybe have a one-to-one with people, have a coffee, just listen, chat, explore, and diminish that authority that you can bring through your structural place.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about for a while and that we see a lot is that people have a powerful voice built on whatever it is that gives them that assurance in these spaces that is imbued to some extent with a sense of hierarchy. It doesn’t even need to be structural. If people have these powerful voices, it can be hard for people with powerful voices to learn to use them less. Anything that we can do that makes it easier for us as a person in that power to use our voice less in those moments and let people know that we might have a powerful voice if we need it. It’s not what this is about. I’m diminishing myself. I’m not listening. I’m doing that through coffee and having a bite to eat.

I’ve got a question on that because you’ve made me think of two things. One is a place I worked where the layout of the canteen was all bench seating with the CEO and the leadership team quite often. It was bench seating, not just bench tables. You would literally have them slide next to you.

Anything that makes you humble is wonderful.

The other thing he used to do when he was leaving the office, he would make eye contact and smile at everyone. Eventually, once he had done it a couple of times, he would approach you particularly if it was the end of the day and people had left. I got used to him swinging by my office and going, “How is it going?” It’s not about work. He’d be like, “How is it going?” I learned to teach my team to always have a question for him, not like a work question. Don’t be surprised and be like, “How has your day gone?” Sometimes it’s a bit of a shock. That leads me to a question for you, which is if you are a fully or mostly remote team or organization, is it harder for leaders who are not your line manager? Are leaders above your manager to be able to create those opportunities for informality?

I didn’t even step away and reflect on it. It probably is because that ad hocness is not there. It means you need to be intentional in doing that if you’re at a higher level. You can do it. That informality, ad hocness, and physical proximity are harder. I was listening to something about someone else that I liked which is how friendships and companionship work and things like that.

We shape and think of friendship. In a lot of the places where I live, people get together and they do something or they have a conversation if they eat. They do that. I was reading something about a society, and apologies if I misquote or it’s not fully accurate, but something that was written that I read said that in some of those societies, people will get together and just do nothing. They get together and just be in proximity. There’s something powerful about connection through proximity that is a helpful thing.

It made me think about something that is not about work, but it just struck me. My family spread around the place. We have started annually-ish getting together for three days in a central location. We don’t spend every minute together at all. We anchor it with dinner together every night and then different groups in that family because we’re quite a big family. Different groups will go off and do different things during the day. There’s a WhatsApp group where we can say, “Let’s all play tennis. We’re all going to go and do this.” There is something about being anchored in the same space. Even if there’s one member of the family who has different tastes and preferences, probably we’ll see each other outside of those dinners. It’s about anchoring in that space.

I wonder if that works remotely. If there is an organizational-wide opportunity to attend an online seminar or workshop, and as a CEO, a leader, or a manager, you step into that space and use it as a way to send clear messaging that you are in the same place as everyone else. Maybe it’s a lunch and learn and you deliberately make sure you eat your sandwich on camera with your sound off to demonstrate that just like everybody else you’re trying to grab a bite and communicate. Maybe it’s about asking questions that are no more complex than anyone else would and being a little bit intentional and considerate of that.

You’re not going to laugh but you might roll your eyes at me. That takes me back to Amy Edmondson’s situational humility. It takes me back to that idea of how you demonstrate every situation you’re in. How do you show humility for what you don’t have? It’s great for showing you credibility cause you show what you don’t know, but also creating that space for people to see that you don’t hold yourself differently or on a different level. That’s what I was thinking about.

I’m not laughing at that at all. That’s the star price. That’s such a good point. In fact, humility is such a thing. If somebody’s humble, they’re approachable. If somebody presents in a way that’s not approachable, then it’s hard to not feel hierarchical.

WOW 172 | Reducing Hierarchy

Reducing Hierarchy: Reducing Hierarchy: If somebody’s humble, they’re approachable. If somebody presents in a way that’s not approachable, then it’s hard not to feel hierarchical concerning them.


To your point earlier, lots of managers are wanting to but are struggling. To what extent do you think we should be saying to managers right now, “You are probably not as accurate as you think either way about how approachable or not you are? You should probably try and get some understanding of how others perceive you.” Does that matter or do you think people have a pretty good idea?

I’ve got a couple of thoughts on that. Self-awareness kicks it up at these priorities for all of us, myself included. Somebody once gave me feedback, “You seem like you’re approachable but you never share anything. Nobody knows anything about you.” I was like, “I’m approachable.” “Yeah, but you’re just not saying about you.”

You’ve added the vanilla interpretation at the end of that.

There was a misperception from my side about what I was bringing to those spaces to build that relationship, and whether I was offering anything that was vulnerable or honest or insightful about me as a person that helped me be humble, as opposed to things that I’ve often been good at around inquiring, listening well, engaging, and being empathetic. That’s the drawing out of others as a different thing to be giving up myself, There was a message in there. There is a self-awareness piece there that is important about all of this. There is a different thing. I don’t know how much it quite fits in here, but a lot of the people that I’ve spoken to about this are people who’ve ended up when I was doing this from a work perspective in very senior roles.

Once people get to that certain level of seniority, everyone in the culture where I was around them didn’t need so much of this breakdown of hierarchy. People had a different set of skills, expectations, and capabilities. It was a different way of working and being. In their social media, the groups that they operated within, they didn’t need to do these things to break down the hierarchy. Their ways of working there were different from the ways that they needed to work to reduce hierarchy for those because everybody there had a powerful voice and was strong, had sharp elbows, was super busy, and all those types of things.

It was more for the people structurally below them that needed to be approachable, and they had this dual tension. They’re trying to be like this alpha person in the senior teams and working certain ways, but then they needed to snap out of that and realize that they need to ask somebody about how their lunch was or how their kids’ football game was. It was hard particularly when they felt that their days are managed and half-hour slots by their assistants. There’s no time for anything and there’s a pressure. They’ve run trains and whatever. I can’t remember your question, but self-awareness. How about that?

In terms of how aware people are perceived, I’m going to use a phrase that’s your phrase. I’m going to ask you about it because it relates to what you just said and I’m going to explain why. When you talked about that rushed off, they’re busy, and they don’t know it, one of the things sometimes leaders misunderstand is firstly the difference between what they say and the leader’s attention.

Understanding that people don’t take nearly as much from what their leaders say is where their leaders pay attention, and so where their leaders are putting their effort and time. If leaders are walking around the office smiling all the time, that’s great and lovely. If that’s one-thousandths of their time and most of the time they’re sitting in a meeting room at the end, and it’s glass and everyone can see them looking serious and focused 99.9% of their time. I’ve heard you use the phrase, “Badges of power.”

The reason I wanted to ask about that is because I think there are loads of unsaid things and non-behavioral things that reinforce hierarchy. Sometimes that might be where a leader pays attention rather than what they say and do, but also 90% of their diary is blocked up by signing off decisions. Inevitably, that feels like that person is the most important. When you’re in a team and you’re a manager, there are lots of stuff that come with that that unintentionally can remind everyone constantly that you are in charge.

It’s funny that phrase “Badges of power” evolved because one time, I did a facilitated date-long workshop for some people. It was across a big set of layers in an organization from senior manager, in this case, up to exec leadership at the board level. I remember we had the CFO turn up, and everybody had their little name badges on in the room because people don’t know each other. He walked in. He is like, “I don’t need one. Everyone knows who I am.” What did I do? “I don’t care. You’re going to put that badge on because this isn’t hard if everybody knows who you’re.” How do we level that?

That is the exact point I mean about self-awareness. People don’t think, “What does that say about me? What does that say to people? I’m special.”

“I don’t need that.” This wasn’t a different case because, in that instance, we need to give him something as opposed to stripping him away from the bunch, these things that hold up their special power. They can appear in all these different ways. Sometimes it’s a fact that somebody can afford bespoke socks that they wear that make them look cool or whatever it is. Tire plays a role in this, not in your car but in the clothes that you wear. It could be having an office or having a personal assistant.

It could be the way that you get loaded into teams and your label, whether it has a “Manager” after your name. Everyone knows every time they join a meeting, “That’s the manager.”

It could be which floor of a building you sit on. They’re on the 42nd floor, or wherever it happens to be. All these things are social rewards for the people because they make you feel like, “I’m a cool dude. I’m important.” I use dude as a gender-neutral term just so you know.

It’s super challenging because one of the conversations we have quite a lot with clients is, “How do we maintain accountability, responsibility, and ownership?” I’m like, “It’s harder because you’re going to invite more crossover work.” There are less clear delineating lines over people. You’re also going to give people a bit more responsibility. That means they might make more mistakes and you’re going to look at ways that they can take on more ownership of other work. Eventually, that’s going to maybe take projects longer. The practical example I would give you, if I was writing a project brief, you would probably put on that front page the sponsoring manager, lead senior staff member, or whatever.

That’s important. That’s practical. I’m not suggesting redesigning everything but you might put “project owner” or “project lead” at the top of the page, and you might put that person at the bottom of the page. I know that sounds silly and I know for a lot of people, that’s not silly. That’s such a small thing. It’s putting the person who’s leading the work at the center of the project. On its own, it does nothing, but with everything slowly changing to things like that, it can be helpful. What do you think? Do you think that’s an unnecessary small change that I’ve just explained?

I think it is emblematic of things that are important in this space. While that little change might be a small thing in itself, the concepts behind it are great. Symbols are hugely powerful. These things shape many of our organizational structures and societies, and all those things are totally moderate. That’s one little example.

Can I give you a reverse example that drives me crazy, which is similar to your badge one? I know quite a lot of organizations use staff awards. The senior staff never win them. We are more important than that. We don’t need awards for our trifling work. It’s probably one of my least favorite things about awards.

I’ve got one other thought on this sort of space than something else in terms of how we do this. I see people trying to do this. One of the things that I get a sense of is people are like, “This isn’t the job.” People think, “I’ve got to do the job and then I’ve got to do all this shaping what it’s like to work here on the side of my desk while I’m being away from my real work. Imagine how much work I’d get done if I didn’t have to go around it, like be nice to people and show them I’m a human? I would’ve got six more emails done in the time I’ve had to listen to this person tell me about their life.”

We separate this connecting with people from our jobs or maybe from being productive. This stuff is a huge part of a job as a leader. If you’re a part of your leaders or managers to create a team that’s capable of succeeding and achieving your objectives, then this stuff is a huge part of the job. We separate it. What do you think? How do you think people carry this?

You’ve made an unarguable statement. It’s a part of your job. Whether I think that is necessarily a part of reducing hierarchy separately and whether that’s problematic around that. I’m not sure. To go back to the original conversation, you have to be realistic about whether this is achievable in the organization you are in. Reducing hierarchy things may not happen. You still need to do the connecting thing, but you could still do the connecting thing and not reduce the hierarchy. What I do think is that there is a misunderstanding about the benefits of reducing hierarchy for leaders and managers.

For someone eager to get onto the next thing, I generally need to look behind me at what I’ve done and see who’s going to take that up. That’s going to be very difficult for them to do if I haven’t created a space where people feel they can step in and out of what they’re doing. There are projects that might be in my team that are way smaller. I think I could give a little bit of exciting things to them because it’s another thing about leaving a team that’s hierarchical. Generally, as you’re managing that team, it’s not considered normal for you to step into the very bottom challenges. If you are up here and there are three layers below you, generally, you’re not going to step into that.

You’re like, “I’ll spend a day doing your job to raise money for charity.” That’s what I’ve seen there.

I like that space and it’s valuable to occasionally step into projects that are interesting but maybe being picked up by more junior members of the staff. The hierarchy works for you in a number of ways as a manager. What I would say about making space is what I do find in hierarchical organizations in my experience with the teams is a lot less appetite or confidence in innovating processes and systems. They do the workflow but do not design the workflow unless there’s someone above them responsible for that.

One of the biggest things organizations miss out on is the person doing the workflow is nearly always with the right support, and the best person to innovate that workflow or that process. One of the most powerful amazing things a manager can do is think about the process that exists in their team and how they could both pull out some of the hierarchy of those processes. Taking away maybe touchpoints or making them optional touchpoints or increasing transparency.

Think about the processes in their team and how the managers could pull out some of the hierarchy of those processes.

I’ve got this thing where if you massively increase transparency in your team of what everyone is doing, you can massively reduce the touchpoints to formalities because everyone got free access and is being totally transparent about what they’re doing. The power of a process and where is the hierarchy in that process is important because it will get you to a place where if you can reduce the hierarchy in the process it might also innovate much faster.

There’s a whole host of stuff around that and I think people often don’t see that. That gets fallen between the gaps sometimes because people who are managing and leading the team like the big change projects, and in a hierarchy team, the guys doing the workflows don’t feel they’ve got the autonomy to change them. You end up with this disconnect. You get very outdated processes and systems which further reinforce this challenge.

You’re right about the processes. Maybe something you could do is think about all the ways the people in your team spend time. Think about whatever things go on there and whether there are things that are happening that you could reduce hierarchy. One of our favorite examples is weekly meetings. In more hierarchical organizations, there’s a chair. The chair is normally the manager. The manager normally comes in and says stuff and everybody else doesn’t say anything. That feels like a waste of time for everyone. The manager is like, “Why is nobody engaging in my meeting? Why don’t I get any feedback? Why don’t people put the ideas in?”

People are like, “Why is the manager speaking to us about this stuff?” There’s a side conversation now. What we find is that within meetings, if you mix that up or you say, “I’m not going to be the chair. Somebody else can be the chair of this. Somebody else can drive all this stuff,” and give people these spaces in that twenty minutes or whatever it is. Somebody else is at a higher stage of the hierarchy than you and finds all this opportunity. You can do that. Maybe once you can make one-to-one more of a two-way thing and less of a director thing. That can help with that and find all those touchpoints and just do a little review of them.

On top of that, I think splitting ownership of the agenda and sharing is helpful. Either the leader can do neither of those things or they can do one of them. It’s a powerful thing when you split out who’s responsible for owning and deciding the agenda and what’s on the agenda with who’s chairing the meeting. What you end up with is the chair becomes much more of a facilitator and those are skills you can build in anyone. The owner of the agenda becomes much more of a tactician and an understanding of it. If you can mix that up with people, that’s helpful.

As you were talking about that, I wanted to flag that one of the fastest ways to change the hierarchical nature is to think about shifting from how you measure and talk to your staff about what they are doing versus moving into talking to them about how they are progressing in meeting the achievements, outcomes, or outputs that they are trying to do. That’s just framing language, “The project is about you getting to point x. Talk to me about how you’re getting on with that.” That gives them the space to say, “I’m doing Z brilliantly but Z isn’t working to get me to where I want to be.” It creates that space to have that conversation.

WOW 172 | Reducing Hierarchy

Reducing Hierarchy: One of the fastest ways to change the hierarchical nature is to think about shifting from how you measure and talk to your staff about what they are doing versus moving into talking to them about how they are progressing.


It brought to my mind this one of the management books called Leadership Is Language.

I didn’t read that yet. It’s on my list.

I think we’re pretty much out of time. I got two words at you and get you to reflect on one a little bit. My two words are respond and productively. Pick up on responding productively.

I recognize that language. That’s more psych safety. Amy Edmondson, good stuff. When we talk about responding productively, generally what we’re talking about is as a manager, how do you respond to someone’s input? When they speak or say or do something, how do you respond to it such that you are reiterating the very nature of what you’re trying to achieve? If you’re trying to be less hierarchical and someone speaks up, how is it that you can respond to it so that you are building their confidence to do it again even if they’re wrong?

How can you respond in such a way that allows them to understand that you are appreciative? Particularly if they’ve challenged you, asked you a difficult question, or opened a difficult conversation, I think that’s important. One of the things that I see a lot with managers is they want to do this but they do not understand the drawbacks or the short-term drawbacks, which are things will take longer, people will make more mistakes, or may well make more mistakes. They certainly might not do it the best way possible because people are moving around and taking up different pieces of work, being more vocal, and taking on more responsibility. They’re likely to have less experience than the person you had earmarked to do it in a very structured, hierarchical, and top-down approach.

Managers want to reduce hierarchy in their team, but they do not understand the drawbacks or the short-term drawbacks.

Therefore, you have to manage that frustration because if you are the person who instigated this change, it is your onus and your responsibility. When they do the things you are asking them to do, which is to step outside of their lane, to step up to challenge, or whatever it is you’re asking them to do in terms of reducing the hierarchy, they do it but it’s not the thing you want, not the words or the piece of work you want. They have to still know that they were good to do the thing even if the output of it wasn’t in this particular case the right thing in your view. You calling that out is important. Well-played.

I’m going to have a quick checkout and ask how you feel after that chat.

It was an interesting chat. I haven’t thought about a lot of those things in a very long time because I haven’t managed a team that’s hierarchical in a very long time. We work with clients who do. It makes me want to go back into that space a little bit mentally and try and think about whether I have a structured approach as I would like to have when I talk to clients about how I can support that. I might do some reading about that. We are kicking off our 2023 Connected Management Open Cohort, which means we’ve got lots of lovely people from different organizations joining us to start their connected management journey with worldwide projects. I’m super excited.

I’m looking forward to that. I’m feeling good after that chat. I like that topic. It was fun to talk about. It’s nice, reflective, and good to think through some of those things leaders can do. I’ve got the same stuff going on in my calendar as you.

Before we say our final goodbyes, just one thing. For those of you who’ve been tuning in to the last few management challenges, James and I have a whole list of management challenges that we’re thinking of working through for this series. If you have a management challenge that you would love us to talk a little bit about, feel free to drop us an email at or get in touch on Twitter. I’m @Janie_S and James is @JGCarrier. We would love to hear from you if there’s a particular challenge you would like us to talk about here.

Until next time, it’s goodbye for me.

And it’s goodbye for me.


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