The business world has had a long-standing love/hate relationship with hierarchy.
Hierarchy determines who gets to decide what and where the information flows, which allows us to focus our attention on other aspects of running the business. It reduces complexity, helps us scale and get things done, but it frustrates us by making us less agile and bogs us down in bureaucratic details.
What we didn’t realize is that by allowing the hierarchy to literally structure our relationships internally, we let our basic skills atrophy in building and maintaining relationships among the human beings in our organizations.
Fluid organizations will dominate
Companies that aspire to a fluid, hierarchy-free organizational structure need to find ways to encourage authenticity. Flat organizations need individuals to make decisions for themselves, and that only works if people are up front about their thoughts, concerns and motivations.
We’re already seeing signs of organizations becoming more transparent and fluid, but Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, authors of When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business, insist that millennials will demand it.
Fluid hierarchies are more dynamic and flexible, putting the onus back on employees to do a better job at managing their relationships. We need to build the internal capacity for effective relationship building by investing in soft skills, like authenticity and conflict resolution, which the authors encourage.
The ability to confront and work through conflict, without drama and angst, is at the heart of making a fluid hierarchy work. Conflict resolution has long been an underdeveloped skill in organizations. In a command-and-control hierarchy, the primary directive is to follow orders, thus eliminating the need to actually resolve conflict.
The result has been a large-scale avoidance of conflict at work. Since we’re bad at it, the only experiences we have tend to be the ugly ones, and that only reinforces our desire to avoid it. But in fluid hierarchies this doesn’t work.
Where decision-making authority is more fluid, people throughout the structure will be forced to figure things out themselves, and that requires the smooth handling of conflict when it emerges. Make sure your leaders and employees know how to manage and resolve conflict.
Authenticity doesn’t usually make the list of skills in your business training program. But, for a fluid organization, authenticity is a critical skill.
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Authenticity involves moving through the world as your whole self, so your external behavior and the way you engage with others is very closely aligned with your deeper identity, purpose, and even destiny.
When the way you show up at work becomes disconnected from who you are inside, you’re being inauthentic. You can be authentic and still make choices about what parts of yourself to share in any given context, but when workplace expectations cause you to behave in ways that are not true to who you are that’s when problems emerge.
Fluid organizations intentionally spread power throughout the hierarchy; they rely on the employees to do the work of figuring out who makes decisions and why, rather than having the hierarchy decide that for them.
Authenticity makes that constant negotiation easier by doing what the hierarchy used to do, reducing cognitive load. When your employees are confident their coworkers are more consistently who they appear to be, it becomes easier to speak the truth, challenge each other, and tackle the tough issues. You spend less of your time trying to figure out how people will react or how they expect you to behave in the first place – both of you get to simply be who you are.
True authenticity isn’t easy, and it’s not common. The pressure is strong to conform in companies, so supporting your employees to be more authentic will require some investment.
A version of this post originally appeared on OCTanner.com.