From Human Pyramid to Best Place to Work

From Human Pyramid to Best Place to Work

EmosFuture of Work
July 17, 2023

Like human pyramids, organisational hierarchies are great feats of ‘management’ and individual skill but they are also an organisational blue print from about a 100 years ago. They are slow and inefficient behemoths, and generally not great places to work.

A traditional hierarchy is an organisational structure that relies on a vertical chain of command where every entity is subordinate to the one above. Because the top wants to know whether everyone is doing their job, the main communication lines are also vertical. Roles tend to be well-defined and inflexible, and the ‘height’ within the hierarchy depicts a person’s authority and power status. (1, 2)

[ Cover Image Attribution: Sportsman in France forming a human pyramid, 1919. Photo credit: M. Rol, Ullstein Bild, Getty Images. ]

This model might make sense in situations where many people need to be mobilised in a short space of time, like during an emergency, or perhaps for linear work that requires no brain power, but there are so many known challenges with this structure.

Hierarchy Belongs in a Management Museum

To name a few, this type of environment tends to be riddled with bureaucracy and is extremely sluggish (3). ‘People like the mission of the company, but we just don’t get anything done,’ sounds familiar? Approvals getting stuck in the chain of command, endless daily and weekly meetings, 6-month long budget planning — how often does the business of running the business start to trump the reason why the organisation actually exists? And why do we accept those endless meetings, that unrelenting stream of emails, that stagnated decision-making as a part of our daily reality? It simply does not make sense.

Not just that, the prevalence of top-down communication and command means that collaboration accross the organisation is virtually non-existent and creative and innovation stagnates. So while the greatest strength of the hierarchy was its reliability in maintaining the status quo, which was what companies wanted decades ago, this is now its greatest weakness (3).

And what about how the human experience within a hierarchy? A command and control structure and a lack of autonomy, often innate to a hierarchy, are known killers of meaningful work. Self-determination theory tells us that addressing key human psychological needs like autonomy (having choices and authority over what to do) and relatedness (in terms of experiencing genuine care from bosses or colleagues, and caring for them in return), are key in motivating employees and enabling them to experience purpose through their work.

Theory X or Y?

But also, what does a hierarchy unconsciously tell us about the level of trust the organisation has in its employees? As described in McGregor’s classic book, The Human Side of Enterprise, management styles are essentially an outflow of how an organisation perceives its employees. If you believe that employees are lazy, are out to get you, and want to do the least amount possible, you subscribe to ‘Theory X,’ and you’ll likely engage in micro-management, “command and control” and an authoritarian style of leadership. Alternatively, if you believe that people are trustworthy and responsible adults, who want to work and take pride in their work, you subscribe to ‘Theory Y,’ and you’re likely to adopt a participative management style and collaborative practices that nurture the wellbeing and passion of employees.

And don’t forget, the cost of running a hierarchy is eye-watering high when you look at the time spent on maintaining it. Have you ever tallied up the monthly costs of those weekly meetings that nobody really feels like attending and are limited in their effectiveness? Or of an employee having to chase up authorisation, or of creating a 5-year strategic plan, which mostly likely will need to be amended as soon as circumstances change? And what about the time and effort required ‘controlling’ people’s work and behaviour? Again, does this still make sense? It really doesn't.

Hierarchy as Organisational Risk.

And while it is not often framed liked this, the hierarchy is perhaps the biggest risk for any organisation still employing it (3). Its long response time to change, its lack of innovation and its cost makes it vulnerable to competitors that are able to move with more speed and agility. And with its lack of focus on the employee experience, those still employing a hierarchy might have a heck of a time attracting and retaining top talent (3). In particular with the younger generations emphasising the importance of finding purpose and freedom at work. So with the war for talent intensifying and the ‘great attrition’ being underway, figuring out alternatives to the hierarchy and flattening the structure is quickly becoming a necessity (3, 5).

So even though the hierarchy has permeated almost every government and every organisation around the world, as Jacob Morgan writes in Forbes, the hierarchy belongs in a management museum locked up for people to see, but definitely not to touch (3).

Wandering in the Wilderness

So how could it look, differently? An organisation that is self-managing, agile, innovative, which enables work to be ‘awesome’ for its employees and creates a bigger impact, is it a utopian pipe dream? Or maybe one that can only be realised in smaller organisations?

The stories of change towards self-management and flatter structures shared by a wide variety of organisations at the Teal Around The World conference (6) shows that big shifts are happening in how (also large) organisations think about organisational design. They are challenging engrained ideas about management and shared ways in which to start reducing hierarchical structures and systems.

After years of trying to improve the organisation and encountering issues for which incremental changes to the existing structure simply did not work, Bill Anderson (CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals division consisting of 55 000 people) and team embarked on a journey towards an organisational structure that would better suit the people within the organisation.

What stood out was the mindset behind and throughout this change process: the humility of not knowing. They acknowledged that they really had no idea how to do things differently or how to even allocate resources to the process of change. While this was uncomfortable, in particular for those who sought control and certainty, Bill kept holding space for what he called ‘wandering in the wilderness’ — sitting in the unknown, having no plans, and not knowing what the outcomes would be.

Fundamental Elements of Change

While this kind of process does not equate to a tidy ‘6-steps-to-success’ methodology, he did identify a few key elements to this process:

  • Common sense: They continuously questioned the old ways of doing things by using the 3 Whys method — asking ‘why’ three times to get to the real root of why they did things in a certain way and to unravel if it still made common sense to continue doing it like that (7).
  • Dream together: Create a compelling vision, together, of what the new could look like.
  • One direction: They looked at whether the organisational mission was truly held and believed in throughout the organisation. They set about creating a shared understanding of the mission and, importantly, ensuring that everyone was clear on how their individual work contributed to that purpose.
  • Make people’s jobs awesome: This effort focused on the question ‘can everyone do something everyday that contributes to the mission?’ This focused on empowerment but also on ensuring that everyone feels they do worthwhile work that they can connect to.
  • Put the delivery of the service at the centre of the organisational structure and systems. So focusing on the organisational outcomes they were aiming for and forcing all the internal mechanisms towards that.
  • Invite scepticism, in particular of the existing leadership. Listen, have conversations, be open.
  • Accept human nature: Creating a smooth-running organisation is not about creating utopia. You are not remaking human nature, people will be people, accept it.

While this might seem like common sense, quite a few of these elements fundamentally challenge the current ways of business and the common ways to approach change processes. In particular, sitting in the unknown and allowing the process to take the organisation where it needs to, is a massive departure from creating a change management plan, a budget and a strict timeline. Also, making the direct link between every person’s work and the overarching mission of the organisation, is an extension of truly valuing everyone’s contribution.

Future of Work and Organisations

Interested in knowing more? There is increasing attention for different ways of organising and the future of work. There are several different ‘thought movements,’ like Holacracy, Teal/Reinventing OrganizationsSociocracy, and Semco Style. While they all take a slightly different approach, they focus on how to move away from unhelpful hierarchies and bureaucracy, and centre around given people autonomy, enabling collaboration and distributing power throughout the organisation.

Note: This article is meant as an introduction to thinking about organisational structures beyond the traditional hierarchies we commonly see around us. It is not meant as a complete rejection of hierarchy in all its forms, nor as advocacy for fully flat or boss-less organisations (8). In other words, it sidesteps some of the more in-depth and sophisticated thinking on this topic.

Note: This article is reposted with permission from Puck’s Medium as linked below.


  6. The reference to Bill Anderson’s story is from the 2021 Teal Around the World conference. The 2022 TATW conferences happens on the 3rd and 4th of March 2022.