Bring on the Egalitarian Workplace
Networked organizations—in which all employees share responsibilities and work as a group of equals—have a better chance of success than those with traditional hierarchies. Pro or con?
Pro: Toss Out the Job Description
The time for a management reset has come, one that’s not simply a matter of making leaders more effective or adopting the latest twist on how to engage employees. It must be a seismic change, a complete rethinking of what an organization’s objectives are and the way it can achieve them.
While hierarchies were the favored form of organizing in the past, they should not be the key design orientation in the next era of business. Hierarchies, characterized by tight controls, centralized decision-making, and clear-cut job descriptions, often alienate employees and promote an individualistic work mentality. Traditional management systems are increasingly a vanishing breed, no longer valuable or relevant in today’s increasingly human-capital-centric workplace.
As traditional hierarchies fall by the wayside, so should one of their key tools: job descriptions. Despite their widespread uses, job descriptions are more dysfunctional than helpful. They set boundaries, pigeonhole employees, and provide a convenient excuse for what not to do. Not only are they costly to develop and keep current, they constrain change and flexibility. The best alternative is to simply abandon them and create an egalitarian workplace of shared responsibilities.
While this might sound like a radical approach to many, it is the way most professional service and knowledge work firms have been successfully managed for decades. It’s also the approach of an increasingly large number of global organizations, including Google (GOOG), Netflix (NFLX), Nike (NKE), and W.L. Gore. A longtime leader in this "new" way of management is Nordstrom (JWN), a 110-year-old company operated according to one simple principle: "Use good judgment in all situations." Nordstrom’s legendary reputation for great service is achieved without job descriptions telling people what they should do.
Let’s be clear: The need for leadership will always exist. There will always be a need for visionaries, people who can influence others, and people who can execute. Otherwise, how would anything get done? The changes we’re calling for are in how we manage and lead. Today’s management approaches must highlight agility, emphasize adaptability, and focus on human capital as a source of competitive advantage. For organizations both large and small, this assures sustainable effectiveness—today and well into the future.
Con: There’s a Reason Hierarchies Exist
What a seductive notion! A workplace without bosses, where everyone contributes equally. It sounds good, even utopian, with echoes of a socialist workers’ paradise. And granted it’s been proven to work in limited, relatively contained settings such as self-directed work groups. But can it work on a large-scale basis, and will it be the wave of the future? I don’t think so.
Whether we like it or not, hierarchy is ingrained in our DNA. Parents are the original bosses, endowed with wisdom and power. As children, we learn to respect elders, community leaders, teachers, and people in positions of authority such that hierarchical relationships become as natural as breathing.
In organizations, hierarchy is more than just a human predisposition; it’s a practical necessity. The purpose of an organization is to mobilize diverse talents and abilities in order to produce goods and services. In the modern world, we have harnessed technology to multiply this output. But to do this, we need to divide up tasks, match them with the right people (since not all people have equal skills), and then integrate them for customers. Somebody has to provide the direction to make this happen effectively at every stage and level. That’s the role of the supervisor, manager, team leader, or executive. Without this guidance and decision function, we would have disorganization. Would you want to fly in an airplane with no designated pilot or be operated on by a medical team without a chief surgeon?
Embracing hierarchy, however, does not mean that bosses need to be heroes or despots; they can make decisions through engagement and consultation. Nor does it mean that we can’t leverage a network of resources. A "boundaryless organization" can facilitate networking. But boundaryless does not mean boundary-free where employees roam wildly without direction. Rather it means that the boundaries can be more permeable so that people can share information, resources, and ideas to make the whole enterprise more successful. Making this happen is never easy, but it can’t be done at all without leaders who have the authority to break the ties between groups and individuals who have different visions of what should be done. And at least for the time being, there is no better way to do this than through some version of a traditional hierarchy.