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How to Create a Non-Hierarchical Culture and Still Have Clear Leadership

Joanna Swash
Joanna Swash

A non-hierarchical structure enables a company to be agile and creates a wonderful work environment with engaged and empowered staff who feel, and very much are, a key part of the company's success.

We have all heard of companies with secluded offices reserved for senior staff, offices equipped with large, custom-made desks, expensive computers, plush desk chairs, espresso machines, liquor cabinets, personal assistants and much more.  

Looking back further, however, we've come a long way from companies like the East India Company, where office staff had to sign in and out, and every 15 minutes had to make sure they were in the office. Even when open-plan offices were introduced in the early 1900s, such as the Larkin Administration Building in New York, workers sat in organized rows while managers had personal offices.

Status-symbol offices may seem very out of place in today's business world, and physical office space is just one part of the equation. On the practical side, it's good to have a lean and efficient workforce structure, where every managerial role generates income and your attrition rates are low. Being non hierarchical enables a company to be agile, and it creates a genuinely wonderful working environment with engaged and empowered staff who feel, and very much are, a key part of the company's success and continued growth.

There are seven strategies you can use to ensure a non-hierarchical structure while still maintaining clear leadership:  

Appoint team leaders, not managers.

Look at your company structure as an inverted pyramid: The managers should serve to support frontline or key staff, enabling them to do a phenomenal job. Consider having team leaders instead of tiers of managers, and make sure they spend a good part of their time doing the same job as the people they are managing, while the rest of their time can be spent ensuring their team is happy.

As a consequence, they will come across as role models, and you are less likely to hear, "My manager doesn't understand my role," from staff. A good internal litmus test is whether it is easy to spot who is part of the management team and who isn't.

Retain a small business mentality.

When a business grows rapidly, the entrepreneurialism from the company's early days can be lost. (Staff who were around in the early days may  reminisce about the "glory days," when they had a sense of all being in it together.) It can be useful to retain a small business mentality in which everyone works together to get the job done. That can entail brainstorming new products or services with all levels of staff, making coffee for the staff, or having lunch together.

I know of several companies where the senior managers take around the coffee cart to every department or field incoming phone calls to show they're not afraid to roll their sleeves up and help out. In fact, one of my favorite YouTube clips shows Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, two of the richest and most powerful men in the world, putting in a shift at a Dairy Queen.  They are very humble and are clearly happy to learn from employees about how to take customers' orders and serve guests.

Maintain the culture 

Another challenge of rapid business growth is to ensure leaders communicate with staff in a way that informs and enables, without patronizing or dictating. You need leaders that talk to, rather than talk at, employees and that avoid a cascade structure of communications. Leaders should communicate news with everyone at the same time to gain transparency, clarity and trust. In the past, I've seen companies that deliver news to a small group of insiders and then eventually share the news with the rest of the staff. Rumors inevitably start circulating as the news gets leaked to more individuals, but more importantly, this creates a culture of mistrust and "us versus them."

Consider using collaboration tools that are now available; they provide an instant way to chat with employees, immediately and authentically, and to gauge feedback. They also enable staff to easily connect with each other at every level.  

Share the decision-making

While major strategic or financial decisions about a company's future will always fall to senior directors, it's a good idea to involve the team in decision-making, where you can hold informal discussions involving as many of the team as is possible and practical. You can also invite a variety of people from across different departments in the company to share their thoughts and suggestions in an open forum.

It can be useful to avoid using meeting rooms and instead get together in open social areas. This also allows you to avoid a situation where the more senior people naturally take a chair at the head of the table, or, as I've seen on several occasions, where they raise their chair above the level of everyone else, to give themselves an advantage. 

Recruitment is key.

As you recruit new employees, look out for potential warning signs, such as someone who is overly concerned about their status. And when new employees join the team, address anything that doesn't feel right culturally in the first few weeks.

Watch your staff titles and benefits.

Think carefully about the titles you give to staff. For example, does an employee really need to include "vice president" in their email signatures and on their business cards? Could their role instead by be described as "strategy and new business?"

Also, think about the rewards that are offered for different levels of management and consider making these more egalitarian. For example, don't provide senior staff with a week of time off for good work while only offering two extra days to less-experienced staff. 

Champion innovation from every staff member.

It shouldn't only be the senior managers who come up with all the ideas. All employees should feel empowered to come up with the best solution to a problem, and some of the best ideas could from your frontline staff. They are living and breathing the business and providing your service day in, day out. They are well positioned to see what new products or services might be in demand by your customers. 

Image Credit: LanaStock / Getty Images
Joanna Swash
Joanna Swash Member
I am CEO of a business that employs 1,000 employees across the US and the UK and supports 21,000 clients and has 20% year on year growth. Known for my commercial acumen and hands-on leadership style, I am passionate about developing people and creating a culture that breeds success and innovation. Having dealt personally with thousands of businesses who have moved to outsourced communications support, my philosophy is ensuring businesses focus on their key strengths that is do what they’re really good at and get experts in to help with the rest. I am passionate about building practical, innovative and bespoke solutions that can be applied to businesses of all sizes and is a regular contributor and speaker on key topics, including digital transformation, workplace culture, leadership, and international growth.