Flat organizations have a very cruel dynamic which I will highlight in this post.
A flat organization is way of organizing which has no hierarchy or very few layers of hierarchy. Supposedly, these organizations are superior places to work, giving more room for creativity, abstaining from forcing decisions and less infighting and bureaucracy.
I have worked for 8 flat organizations. Two are listed on Wall Street and are technology powerhouses. Three are industrial/agricultural collectives in Israel, and three were start ups.
Here are a few shared dynamics between all 8 organizations.
- There was a huge gap between what the way that they operated, and the way they claimed that they operated.
- There was a power elite in all these organizations, whether or not the people held office or not.
- There was massive social pressure to conform.
- The culture of these organizations was viewed as a ritual, ie, one must behave according to the rules in the spirit of a blind leap of faith.
- There was a lot of apparent buy-in to decisions.
- A language developed to hint at disagreement without actually saying it. Eg, the goal is really tough, yet if we all hunker down, it may be possible.
- There was a lot of cynicism about organizational life.
- Decision making was a nightmare.
Organizations need hierarchies to coordinate, make decisions, allocate resources and manage the inevitable kindergarten that exists in all organizations. And often, there is a dirty diaper to change. Lack of hierarchy causes extreme dysfunction and massive anxiety, so a de facto hierarchy is re-construed under the “non-hierarchy”.
The challenge of good organizing is about making more effective hierarchies, not via taking away the very scaffolding which provides sanity against extreme anxiety, albeit many many negative side effects.